Met Police fail to stop phone hacking libel claim

Allegations of dishonesty against senior officers ruled out

Mr Justice Tugendhat today ruled that the defamation claim brought by the solicitor Mark Lewis against the Metropolitan Police Service can proceed.  

The MPS attempted to have it struck out on the ground that the words in issue were not capable of defaming Mr Lewis and/or that his claim was an abuse of the process; however, the Judge refused Mr Lewis’s application to introduce allegations of dishonesty against senior investigating officers.

Mr Lewis acted for Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, in his claim against News Group Newspapers for phone hacking.  During the litigation an application was made for non-party disclosure against the Metropolitan Police. In September 2009, when giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Mr Lewis described how, whilst waiting for the application to come on, a police officer called DI Maberly (who attended court on behalf of the Metropolitan Police) “mentioned the number of people whose phones had been hacked . . . (he) said that there was evidence about, or they had found there were something like 6,000 people who were involved. It was not clear to me whether that was 6,000 phones which had been hacked or 6,000 people including the people who had left messages.”

In November 2009 the PCC asked the MPS about the true number of victims of phone hacking.  In doing so, the PCC mentioned the evidence about the figure of 6,000.  In reply, the MPS published the words complained of, which included a statement that DI Maberly had been “wrongly quoted” by Mr Lewis when he had given his evidence to the Select Committee. Mr Lewis’ case is that those words in their context meant that he had lied to the Parliamentary Select Committee about what DI Maberly had said to him. Having received this communication from the MPS, Lady Buscombe, acting in her capacity as the PCC chair, had proceeded to state during a speech to the Society of Editors Annual Conference in November 2009 that, on Mr Lewis’ case, he had misled the Select Committee by lying to it.  Mr Lewis sued the MPS, Lady Buscombe and the PCC.  The case against the latter two defendants settled in November 2010, with the payment to Mr Lewis of £20,000 in damages .

The MPS is defending Mr Lewis’s claim for further compensation on the basis that the words complained of did not accuse him of dishonesty, to the extent that they did bear any defamatory meaning, they were true, and they were published on an occasion of qualified privilege without malice.

The Judge today ruled that the words are capable of bearing the alleged meaning of dishonesty, that the issue of qualified privilege should be decided at trial and that the case was not an abuse of the process. He refused Mr Lewis’s attempt to amend his Reply so as to introduce allegations of dishonesty against senior officers.

5RB’s  Desmond Browne and William Bennett (instructed by Taylor Hampton) acted for the Claimant.  Jacob Dean (instructed by Weightmans) acted for the MPS.