Lillie & Reed v Newcastle City Council & Others (No.2)

Reference: [2002] EWHC 1600 (QB)

Court: Queen's Bench Division

Judge: Eady J

Date of judgment: 30 Jul 2002

Summary: Defamation - Libel - Justification - Qualified privilege - Malice - Public authorities - Damages - Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.

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Appearances: Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)  Adam Speker (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: SJ Cornish for the Claimants; Wragge & Co for the Defendants

Facts

The claimants were qualified nursery workers at a day nursery. In 1995 Newcastle City Council commissioned a report into allegations of child abuse at the nursery. The report was written and published to the council by its authors (“the Review Team”) in November 1998. On 12 November 1998 the council held a sub-committee meeting where the report was presented to members of the sub-committee, the press and the public. It concluded that the claimants were guilty of sexually, physically and emotionally abusing children in their care both inside and outside the nursery, sometimes acting alone and sometimes involving other people. The claimants were given no forewarning about the publication. The conclusions were widely reported in the local and national press and the claimants were forced to flee from their homes, go into hiding and change their names. The claimants sued the Council, the Review Team and a local newspaper for libel (which settled during the trial.)

Issue

(1) Whether the words complained of were true
(2) Whether the publication of the report by the Review Team to the council was covered by qualified privilege and if so whether the defence was vitiated by express malice.
(3) Whether the publication by the council to the world at large was covered by qualified privilege under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 and whether, if that publication was privileged, the defence was vitiated by express malice.
(4) Whether damages were to be awarded to the claimants and if so for which publications and at what level.

Held

(giving judgment for the claimants against the authors of the report and awarding damages of £200,000 each and giving judgment for the council against the claimants)
(1) The allegations of child abuse were untrue. The Court was entirely satisfied that the claimants were innocent.
(2) The Review Team had a defence of qualified privilege but it was vitiated by express malice since they abused the occasion, acted in bad faith and consciously set out to distort and misrepresent the evidence.
(3) The Council’s publication was privileged under the LGA and was not vitiated by malice.
(4) The Court was satisfied that each of the claimants had merited an award at the highest permitted level and both had earned it several times over because of the scale, gravity and persistence of the allegations and aggravating factors. They were entitled to be vindicated and recognised as innocent citizens who should be free for what remained of their lives untouched by the stigma of child abuse.

Comment

The case raised important issues on malice (a very rare finding especially against professionals); quantum of damages; and the correct approach to justification for child abuse allegations. It highlighted that public authorities and those employed or engaged by them have great protection under the law provided they do not deliberately abuse that protection as the Review Team did here by acting maliciously.