Full case report
ex parte Coventry Newspapers Ltd
Reference  QB 278
Court Court of Appeal
Judge Lord Taylor CJ, Simon Brown & Roch LJJ
Date of Judgment 24 Jul 1992
Disclosure – Defamation – Libel – public interest immunity – implied undertaking – criminal proceedings
Two policemen sued the Coventry Evening Telegraph (CET) for libel in an article reviewing the history of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. They claimed they were identifiable as two officers referred to, but not named, as having tampered with evidence to prevent revelation that a Mr Brommell had been “fitted up” by the creation of a false “confession”. The officers had already recovered damages from others over such allegations. The CET was unable to justify. In the wake of a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) investigation of his case, Brommell’s conviction was referred to the Court of Appeal by the Home Secretary. The Court ordered disclosure of documents by the PCA and, relying on these, Brommell claimed his conviction was unsafe. Brommell’s appeal was upheld and CET applied to the Court of Appeal for access to the documents used by Brommell. The PCA opposed the application, relying on public interest immunity (PII).
(1) Was disclosure barred by PII?
(2) Should Brommell be released from any implied undertaking not to disclose, so as to free him to pass the documents to CET?
(1) The need for confidentiality which underlay the public interest immunity attaching to the documents was overridden in the circumstances of this case by the need to ensure that the documents were available to the CET, to assist in defeating, if it could, an allegedly corrupt claim for libel damages.
(2) Any implied undertaking by Brommell not to disclose the documents should be released accordingly.
PII for documents of this kind was later done away with by the House of Lords. But at the time the doctrine that PII covered such documents was well-established. The strong facts of the case clearly helped this novel application to succeed. It proved an effective manouevre. The documents were handed over, the CET pleaded justification, and the libel action effectively came to an end: one of the plaintiffs died and the other let the claim go to sleep; eventually it was struck out for want of prosecution.
Oswald Hickson Collier
More from 5RB
5RB is the pre-eminent set in the area for handling defamation, privacy, contempt and data protection matters. Interviewees praise the set for having great depth and quality of counsel, and note that it boasts many of the top barristers in the field. Get the lowdown here.
New 22nd Edition of Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, published by Sweet & Maxwell. Further info here.