Full case report

Oliver v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police

Reference [2003] EWHC 2417 (QB); [2004] EMLR 684
Court Queen's Bench Division

Judge Gray J

Date of Judgment 14 Oct 2003


Summary

Defamation – Slander – Fair Comment – Qualified Privilege -summary judgment – Police


Facts

The Claimant was a police inspector who brought this action for slander against his chief constable (the Defendant) in relation to four statements made orally on the Defendant’s behalf, in response to journalists’ questions about a murder enquiry. The Defendant relied on qualified privilege, justification and fair comment.


Issue

(1) Whether the defence of fair comment was available to the Defendant; (2) Whether the defence of qualified privilege had been made out.


Held

(1) It was settled law that in order to be defensible as fair comment, the facts upon which the comment was based needed to be sufficiently stated or indicated in the words complained. The words spoken in this case did not contain such information, and thereby deprived those to whom the press release was published or republished of the opportunity to make up their own minds as to the validity of comment. Therefore, the defence of fair comment was not available to the Defendant. (2) The publication was protected by qualified privilege, and there would be a trial on the issue of malice.


Comment

“The purpose for which the defence of fair comment exists is to facilitate freedom of expression by commenting on matters of public interest. This accords with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and it is in the public interest that everyone should be free to express his own honestly-held views on such matters, subject always to the safeguards provided by the objective limits mentioned above. These safeguards ensure that defamatory comments can be seen for what they are, namely comments as distinct from statements of fact. They also ensure that those reading the comments have the material enabling them to make up their own minds on whether they agree or disagree.” – per Lord Nicholls in Tse Wai Chun Paul v Albert Cheng [2001] EMLR 777.
At trial the claim failed. See [2004] EWHC 790 (QB).


Instructing Solicitors

Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners for the Claimant; Crutes for the Defendant.