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March 19, 2010

Asbestos slander claim struck out

Category: News

High Court strikes out claim by Asbestos Watchdog chief as abuse of process


A legal claim brought as part of a long running battle between a high profile asbestos surveyor and the Health and Safety Executive has been brought to a premature end.

The High Court has struck out a claim for slander brought by Professor Bridle, Chief Inspector of Asbestos Watchdog, and his company against an HSE Inspector in respect of remarks alleged to have been made about the Professor during an inspection at the University of Wales Lampeter in 2008.

The underlying dispute centres around Professor Bridle’s view that white asbestos contained in bonded manufactured asbestos products (such as beaverboard) poses no measureable risk to health or safety. The HSE is responsible for enforcing Regulations which give effect to an EU Directive based on standards set by the WHO which considers that the risks posed by such products are significantly higher. Asbestos Watchdog therefore claim that millions of pounds are spent on uneccesary removal of harmless asbestos products each year and in creating work for personal injury lawyers (“the great asbestos scam”).

Professor Bridle has previously made complaints against the HSE to the ASA, against the BBC to OFCOM and against the Guardian to the PCC concerning this difference of opinion. Perhaps surprisingly, however, he has not instituted libel proceedings in respect of far more serious allegations in the print media than were allegedly made by the HSE Inspector. In a pre-action e-mail to the Chair of the HSE Professor Bridle admitted that the main objective of these proceedings was to obtain a forum for a public debate on the respective scientific claims. In such circumstances Master Fontaine held that the proceedings were an abuse of the court’s process and should be struck out. In any event the alleged publication took place on an occasion of qualified privilege and there was no evidence of malice fit to go to trial.

Given the publicity surrounding the ongoing case brought against Simon Singh, for whom 5RB‘s Adrienne Page QC is acting, and concerns that speech on scientific matters might be stifled by libel law, it is interesting to note the court’s view that it is an abuse of process to bring defamation proceedings where the real aim is to air a scientific dispute.

5RB‘s Iain Christie (instructed by the Treasury Solicitor’s Department) acted for the HSE and the individual inspector defendant.

For more details and a copy of the judgment, please see the 5RB case report.