Wakefield v Channel Four Television & Others

Reference: [2005] EWHC 2410 (QB)

Court: Queen's Bench Division

Judge: Eady J

Date of judgment: 4 Nov 2005

Summary: Defamation - Libel - Stay of proceedings - concurrent GMC disciplinary proceedings - concurrent libel proceedings - Article 6 - Right to trial within a reasonable time

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Appearances: Desmond Browne QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)  Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)  Jonathan Barnes (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Radcliffes Le Brasseur for the Claimant; Wiggin LLP for the Defendants in the Channel 4 proceedings

Facts

The Claimant was a doctor who, in 1998, had claimed that there might be a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He had brought three sets of libel proceedings against (1) Times Newspapers for articles in The Sunday Times; (2) Channel 4 over a Dispatches programme broadcast in November 2004; (3) and a journalist Brian Deer who had written the newspaper articles complained of, presented the Channel 4 programme and who maintained a website, publications on which gave rise to the third set of proceedings. The Claimant faced a GMC inquiry into serious allegations of professional misconduct and sought stays of the libel proceedings pending determination of the GMC proceedings. The Claim against The Sunday Times had been stayed by consent. Channel Four opposed any stay being granted and Mr Deer was content for stays to be imposed in the website proceedings pending the determination of the Channel Four action.

Issue

(1) Whether the Channel 4 and website proceedings should be stayed pending the determination of the GMC proceedings;
(2) If the Channel 4 proceedings were not stayed, whether the website proceedings should be stayed pending the determination of the Channel 4 proceedings

Held

(1) the Channel 4 proceedings should not be stayed. Whilst there might be an overlap of issues between the libel and GMC proceedings, findings in the latter would not be determinative of (or even admissible in) the former. In addition the Defendants’ Article 6 rights entitled them to have the claim tried within a reasonable period (Johnson v Gore Wood & Co [2002] 2 AC 1 considered): particularly when the Claimant had been using the stayed proceedings to his advantage while not wishing to progress them or to give the Defendants an opportunity of meeting the claims; (2) the website proceedings would be stayed pending the determination of the Channel 4 proceedings. The outcome of those proceedings was likely to be determinative of the others. It was inconsistent with the principle of equality of arms to make Mr Deer, a litigant in person in the website proceedings, to have to progress a case when he had the benefit of legal representation in the Channel 4 proceedings.

Comment

Applications for stays in libel proceedings to abide the result of some other proceedings have a very poor track record in defamation cases (see also Gee v BBC (30 July 1984), Sharma v Jay (No.2) and Fallon v MGN Ltd). In view of the Article 6 considerations identified by Eady J in this case and Fallon, it would now appear that a stay is unlikely to be granted unless the decision from the other proceedings is likely to have a significant and real impact on the libel proceedings. A criminal conviction for example would, if relevant to the libel case, be admissible and conclusive in relation to the allegation that gave rise to the conviction. The same cannot be said for disciplinary tribunals like the GMC.