Full case report
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
Libel – meaning – malice – justification -Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – Breach of Contract – Personal Injury
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.
The Claimant in Person; Eversheds for the Defendants
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.