Reference:  EWHC 1226 (Admin)
Court: High Court (QBD)
Judge: Bean J
Date of judgment: 16 Apr 2014
Summary: Defamation - Slander -Meaning - Comment - Permission to re-amend
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Victoria Simon-Shore (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Manleys for the Claimants; Keoghs LLP for the Defendants
Two companies operating residential care homes for children within the Rochdale region brought a defamation claim against Rochdale Council and the Council’s Leader, arising from comments made by Cllr Lambert at a public meeting on 30 May 2012. The meeting was held following the conviction at Liverpool Crown Court earlier that month of nine men of a range of serious sexual offences, including rape, against over 40 girls and vulnerable young women from the Rochdale area. The Claimants sued in respect of the words allegedly spoken by the Councillor as they had been reported in the local press. Though no specific reference to any individual care home had been made, the Claimants alleged that Cllr Lambert’s remarks had damaged their reputations and that the statements and their subsequent re-publication in the local press caused them to suffer a substantial loss of business in the total sum of £670,800.
The Claimants alleged that the statements were understood to mean their care homes were “dangerous, unsafe and damaging to both vulnerable children in their case and society and therefore no children should be placed with them and they should not be allowed to operate”. The Defendants did not admit to having made the statements as reported in the press and further denied that any words spoken by the Council’s Leader at the meeting were capable of bearing a defamatory meaning.
Following an audio recording and shorthand notes of the meeting being made available to the parties, the Claimants sought permission to re-amend their Particulars of Claim to substitute a new version of the words attributed to Cllr Lambert.
The Defendants opposed the application to re-amend on three grounds: (a) that the Claimants had no real prospect of showing that some of the words set out in the draft re-amended pleading were spoken by Cllr Lambert; (b) that the substitution of new words substituted a new cause of action which did not arise out of the same or substantially the same facts as were already in issue in the claim, and was therefore statute barred since the application to re-amend was made more than a year after the cause of action accrued; and (c) that even on the assumption that the pleaded words were proved to have been spoken, they were not defamatory of the Claimants and were in any event clearly an expression of opinion.
Whether permission to re-amend the Particulars of Claim should be granted having consideration to:
(1) whether the proposed revision of the pleaded text of Cllr Lambert’s remarks amounted to the adding or substituting a “new claim” within the meaning of CPR 17.4 (2)
(2) whether the words complained of in the re-amended Particulars of Claim bore any meaning that was defamatory of the Claimants;
(3) if so, whether the words complained of were an expression of opinion or a statement of fact; and
(4) what meaning the words complained of bore.
Finding for the Defendants and dismissing the claim:
(1) The revision of the pleaded text of Councillor Lambert’s remarks did not involve adding or substituting a “new claim” within the meaning of CPR 17.4(2). The revised claim arose out of the same or substantially the same facts as that made in the previous version. The occasion was the same; the audience was the same; and the revisions to the text did not involve any addition to the gravamen of what was said to be defamatory statements about the Claimants. Bean J concluded that he should allow the proposed re-amendments, provided he was satisfied that the claim should be allowed to go to trial.
(2) The Judge found that the statements were an expression of opinion and did not involve an allegation of culpable behaviour or negligence on the part of either of the Claimants or their staff, nor on the part of the seven private providers of children’s care homes in Rochdale or their staff. The Judge concluded that allegation was a general criticism of the system and an expression of opinion that children in care are not properly protected as a consequence of legislative and systemic defects.
(3) The words complained of in the draft re-amended Particulars of Claim do not bear any meaning which was defamatory of the Claimants;
(4) Consequently, the claim had no prospect of success at a trial.
The Judge commented that the purpose of establishing the Forum was clear. “The Rochdale grooming case was the most serious scandal to have occurred in the area for many years. There was understandable and pressing public concern about what lessons should be learned from it. The audience had a right to expect the leader of the local council to express his opinions frankly and fearlessly when discussing the subject, especially in the context of the forum.”