Reference:  EWHC 1025 (QB);  1 WLR 2933;  EMLR 624; The Times, 7 June 2007
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 3 May 2007
Summary: Defamation - Absolute privilege - Qualified privilege - Witness statement provided to police officer - Limitation - s.32A Limitation Act 1980
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Appearances: Victoria Jolliffe (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Nelsons for the Claimant; DWF for the Defendants
The defendants made complaints to the police that their neighbour the claimant (C) had caused damage to their trees and hedges. C was subsequently arrested but no criminal charges were brought. C brought a slander claim against D2 in relation to 3 initial telephone calls to the police and a claim in libel against D1 in respect of the witness statement he provided to a police officer. D1 applied for summary judgment on the basis that the alleged libel was published on an occasion of absolute privilege; D2 applied for summary judgment on the basis that the claim against her was issued 6 weeks after the expiry of the limitation period. C made an application under s32A of the Limitation Act 1980 that the limitation period should be disapplied because she had been unaware of the existence of the telephone calls until after the expiry of the limitation period.
1) Are words published in a police witness statement provided to a police officer protected by absolute privilege/immunity from suit?
2) Was it equitable to disapply the one year limitation period?
Granting summary judgment in favour of D1 and D2 and dismissing C’s application:
(1) D1’s communication to the police officer in his witness statement was protected by absolute privilege and immunity from suit. The public policy considerations which applied to the immunity afforded to mere witnesses applied with equal validity to initial complainants.
(2) The limitation period would not be disapplied. C had delayed in making her application to the police for disclosure; the claim was relatively trivial and there was no actual damage to reputation; and although C had clearly suffered distress this consideration applied to all the parties involved.
Preliminary oral discussions which are transcribed directly into a police witness statement are also likely to be protected by absolute privilege. Initial voluntary complaints to the police however, such as the telephone calls in this case, are protected only by qualified privilege.