Public Law

There has been a spate of interesting cases about defamation and local authorities. The most recent is Massie v McCaig & Ors [2013] CSIH 14 in which the Inner House lifted an interim interdict preventing a number of politicians from remarking on a donation made by an individual to an opposing political party. The statements were alleged to contain an innuendo that the donation by the individual had induced corruption on the part of the receiving party. However, the Inner House found that the statement was “fair comment” and the interdict was recalled.

This case comes shortly after a decision of the High Court of England and Wales in relation to a libel claim against Carmarthenshire County Council. The claim was brought by a planning blogger who was aggrieved after the Council refused a number of planning applications made by her and her family. In the course of the court action the Council’s chief executive raised a counterclaim after allegations were made against him of corruption. The Court struck down the blogger’s claim and upheld the counterclaim, the Judge noting that “there would be a serious gap in the law if members and officers of a local authority (and others who work in or for other public authorities) could not sue for libel.” The Judge also added that the risk to freedom of expression “where a person maliciously spreads false and defamatory allegations about individuals holding public offices a libel action may be the best means of establishing the truth and preventing repetition.”

The Carmarthenshire case was clearly an extreme example of a defamation claim brought by officers of local authorities, where the claimant was found to have made completely unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and to have been guilty of harassment. This case was of course not initially brought by the Council’s officers but rather was brought by way of counterclaim against allegations made against them. The position, both in Scotland and in England and Wales, is that while it is not competent for a local authority to bring defamation proceedings other than for malicious falsehood (per the case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd), it is possible for councillors or officers of local authorities to raise proceedings where defamatory statements are directed at them. However, it is not common for councillors or officers to bring such proceedings, possibly due to the potential defence of fair comment and the view that local as well as central government should be open to uninhibited public criticism.

One of our recent legal updates also considered the implications of a decision in England, concerning a defamation claim brought by Salford University.

Government, Regulation and Competition Law
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