Merelie v Newcastle Primary Health Care Trust & Others (No.3)
Reference:  EWHC 1433 (Admin)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Underhill J
Date of judgment: 20 Jun 2006
Summary: Libel - meaning - malice - justification -Protection from Harassment Act 1997 - Breach of Contract - Personal Injury
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Adam Wolanski QC (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: The Claimant in Person; Eversheds for the Defendants
The Claimant was employed as a dentist by the First Defendant Trust between 1975 and 2001. In 2001 she was dismissed. In October 2002 she wrote to Bob Smith, the Chief Executive of the Trust, asking that the Trust investigate a large number of matters arising out of her dismissal, including the making of “malicious false allegations” by seven former colleagues. He responded by letter on 14 January 2003, stating that he could not accept that there was evidence indicating that allegations made against the Claimant were false. He sent a copy of this letter to the Chief Executive of the local Strategic Heath Authority. The Claimant sued for libel on the latter publication. She also sued her seven former colleagues under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 on the grounds that they had sought to have her dismissed by repeatedly lying about her conduct to the Trust. In addition the Claimant claimed damages for breach of contract by the Trust and personal injury.
Meaning of the letter of 14 January 2003; whether Mr Smith was malicious; justification; whether the Sixth to Thirteenth Defendants had conducted a conspiracy to ensure the Claimant was dismissed; whether the Trust was in breach of contract; whether the Claimant had suffered foreseeable injury as a consequence of the actions of the Trust’s employees.
The letter of 14 January was not defamatory of the Claimant. It meant no more than that there was no evidence that the allegations against the Claimant were false, and this, in context, was not defamatory of her. Mr Smith was not malicious and the letter was published on a privileged occasion. The letter did not bear the Lucas Box meaning advanced by the Defendant (that the Claimant was guilty of conduct which justified her dismissal), but had it done so, it would have been substantially true in that meaning. There was no campaign of harassment against the Claimant. The claims for breach of contract and damages for personal injury also failed.
The Claimant’s principal complaint was that the Trust had never investigated her claim that she was the victim of a conspiracy by former colleagues. The judge carried out this task comprehensively and rejected every allegation made by the Claimant. It is unusual for a judge to make findings both that the words complained of were not defamatory and, in the alternative, that they were true in the defamatory meaning advanced by the defendant.