Triumph for press as councils face libel ban

Hall: raised matter in Commons

Journalists won a significant victory this week when the Government revealed it is to ban council members and officers from suing them for libel and getting the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Announcing the triumph for press freedom, local government junior minister Alan Whitehead admitted that without a ban there was a risk there would be an increase in litigation against newspapers and public debate would be stifled.

"As a matter of principle, the Government does not believe that public money should be spent by members as part of the process of establishing whether or not they have behaved improperly," Dr Whitehead told MPs.

The Government now plans to slam the door on a new avenue of litigation opened up when three officers of Bedford Borough Council sued Bedfordshire on Sunday in the High Court.

While Mr Justice Gray rejected libel claims against the paper and local Conservative Party agent Stewart Lister by the council’s monitoring officer, Michael Gough, and council lawyer Andy Darkoh, he awarded council chief executive Shaun Field £20,000 compensation from the paper and £7,500 from Lister.

In making the award the judge said: "I bear in mind the risk that heavy awards of damages may chill freedom of expression." But a council committee attracted public criticism by deciding to fund the costs not only of the High Court action but also of any appeal lodged. So far the taxpayers face a likely bill of £400,000 to £450,000

Raising the matter in the Commons, Bedford Labour MP Patrick Hall told the minister: "The use of public money to suppress public criticism would fundamentally undermine freedom of expression and therefore democracy itself. If a Government or a local council disagrees with comments made, they have suitable avenues open to them to obtain a remedy, without recourse to litigation."

Dr Whitehead said the Government move would prohibit authorities from indemnifying members or officers for the cost of taking legal action for slander or libel.

"We are content that authorities should be able to provide indemnities to individuals against the costs of defending such actions, but we do not believe that individuals should be funded at public expense to bring proceedings against a third party."

The Government will outline the proposed ban in a consultation paper setting out proposals to allow councils to indemnify council members and officials from personal liabilities. But the Green Paper will place limitations on the extent to which the powers can be used.

lThe libel action brought was a private action. The Law Lords ruled that councils themselves cannot sue in Derbyshire v The Times in 1993. For them to have that power the Law Lords ruled would be "contrary to the public interest" and would "place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech".

David Rose

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