Former MP loses ‘expenses’ libel claim

Evening Standard Ltd succeeds on summary judgment application

The Evening Standard has obtained summary judgment in a libel claim brought against it by former Conservative MP Jacqui Lait.

Ms Lait sued the newspaper in respect of an article published before the election, on 9 November 2009. It reported her criticisms of a proposed reform to the Parliamentary Expenses System. The article said that Ms Lait’s criticisms “may risk the ire of some”. It referred to facts about Ms Lait’s travel expenses claims and reported that she had been forced to pay back £25,000 in respect of “a major capital gain” on the sale of a taxpayer-funded second home.

This second assertion was mistaken, in that Ms Lait had not sold a second home or been forced to pay back any money. The newspaper pointed out in its defence, however, that she had made a major capital gain on her constituency flat, the interest payments on which had been taxpayer funded.

Following a successful meaning application by the Evening Standard earlier this year, Ms Lait recast the meanings she complained of, and applied for summary judgment on the fair comment and justification defences put forward by the newspaper. The Evening Standard cross-applied for summary judgment on its defence of fair comment, and argued that the remainder of the claim should be struck out under the Jameel  jurisdiction.

In a judgment handed down today, Eady J held that the article was capable of bearing two alternative comments about Ms Lait’s criticisms of the reform proposals. He held that any reasonable jury would be bound to uphold the Evening Standard’s defence that it was fair comment to say those criticisms “may risk the ire of some”. The judge reasoned that even if a jury agreed that, as Ms Lait argued, the article also implied that she had acted hypocritically, that would not be sufficient to justify any damages. Not only was it unrealistic to suppose that a jury would conclude that she should be so compensated, but it would make no sense for further time and large sums of money to be spent on resolving that theoretical point.

Having dismissed Ms Lait’s application and concluded that defence of  fair comment was bound to succeed, the judge found that there was nothing of substance left in the complaint about alleged factual errors in the article.

5RB‘s Mark Warby QC and Victoria Jolliffe (instructed by Taylor Wessing LLP) acted for the Evening Standard.

Read the full 5RB case report here.