Libel Complaint against the Metropolitan Police Dismissed

22 June 2021

Author: Hannah Stewart
Practice Area: Media and Entertainment

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The High Court in England and Wales has recently handed down a judgment, dismissing a claim for defamation following a press release issued by the Metropolitan Police in relation to a fatal accident in which the Claimant in the libel claim, Mr William Spicer, was convicted of careless driving.

Background

On 21st March 2015, Mr Farid Reza was travelling over 60mph in a 30mph zone and fatally struck Hina Shamim, a 21 year old student. Mr Spicer was driving immediately behind Mr Reza, also travelling at a grossly excessive speed. Ms Shamim died almost immediately. Having witnessed the accident, Mr Spicer, the Claimant, drove past the scene before returning only briefly to where Ms Shamim had been hit. He left the scene without making himself known to the police.

The Plaintiff and Mr Reza were charged with causing death by dangerous driving and causing serious injury by dangerous driving. The prosecution’s case was that the two men knew each other and had been racing and showing off at the time of the accident. The Claimant was acquitted of the two offences but was convicted of careless driving.

On 26th January 2017, the day of the verdicts, the Metropolitan Police released a statement, headlined, “Two guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars”. It stated, “Two men who raced their high performance cars along a street in Kingston, leading to the death of a young woman, have been found guilty by a jury” and continued to outline the events. The statement was published on their website, posted on their Twitter account and was also circulated to news outlets. The Claimant issued proceedings for libel complaining that the statement wrongly accused him of causing Ms Shamim’s death.

Preliminary Trial of the Issue of Meaning

The trial of meaning took place on 5th June 2019, with the court having to decide whether the headline encapsulates or reflects the natural and ordinary meaning of the article, read as a whole, namely, whether the article meant that the Claimant was one of two found ‘guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars’. Mr Justice Warby held that no reader of the whole article could reasonably draw that conclusion, stating the established legal principle finds that the meaning of a published article or statement must be collected from the article or statement as a whole. He relied on his own summary in Allen v Times Newspapers [2019] EWHC 1235 (QB) of the common law test of what is defamatory:

“At common law, a statement is defamatory of the claimant if, but only if (a) it imputes conduct which would tend to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking people generally, and (b) the imputation crosses the common law threshold of seriousness, which is that it ‘[substantially] affects in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards him or has a tendency to do so” - Thornton v Telegraph Media Group Limited [2010] EWHC 1414 (QB)

The Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police defended the meaning of the statement as being true and protected by privilege, and argued that the Claimant had not suffered serious harm to his reputation as a result of the publication of the press release. The judge said that all the meanings proposed by the parties had been agreed to be defamatory meanings and that the statement “spells out what happened in a logical and chronological sequence” and presents the matters as fact. He rejected the Claimant’s contention that the statement meant he had been ‘found guilty by a jury of unlawfully killing’ Hina Shamim, and that no reasonable reader of the whole statement could have drawn that conclusion.

Submissions to the High Court

The court considered at length the evidence of the criminal trial and submissions received from the Claimant and the Defendant, as below.

Truth:

The burden of proving the defence of truth lies with the Defendant, who must prove the defence to the civil standard, namely on the balance of probabilities. The court’s task, where the defence of truth is relied upon, is to determine whether the sting of the libel, i.e. the defamatory imputation arising from the meaning of the statement complained of, is substantially true.

The court held that it was satisfied that the Defendant proved that what happened “can properly be described as a race” which ended when Mr Reza hit and killed Ms Shamim. The court then turned to the Chase level two imputation that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the Claimant was guilty of the offences of causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving and was again satisfied that the Defendant proved primary facts and matters which gave rise to reasonable grounds of suspicion that the Claimant committed these offences.

Privilege:

The Defamation Act 1996 provides for both absolute and qualified privilege. In the Defence, it was claimed that the statement consisted of a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings brought against the Claimant, which was therefore published on an occasion of both qualified privilege, pursuant to s14 of the 1996 Act and absolute privilege, pursuant to s15 and Schedule 1 of the 1996 Act. While some of the extraneous material in the statement was not held to be privileged, the court found that the privileged paragraphs maintained their privilege and that they were absolutely privileged under s14.

Serious Harm:

The objective test set out in Thornton v Telegraph Media Group [2011] 1 WLR 1985, states that the offending statement should have a tendency to cause a substantial adverse effect on the attitude of other (right-thinking) people towards the claimant. However, unlike in Northern Ireland, for a successful claim in defamation in England and Wales, it must now also be proved that serious harm was caused to the reputation of the claimant as a result of the publication (s1 Defamation Act 2013).

The High Court in this instance considered the Supreme Court judgment in Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2020] AC 612, which confirmed that section 1 of the 2013 Act:

“…not only raises the threshold of seriousness above that envisaged in Jameel and Thornton, but requires its application to be determined by reference to the actual facts about its impact and not just to the meaning of the words. The burden of proof lies, of course, on the claimant.”

The Claimant pleaded five particulars, including that ‘no less than’ 38 individuals believed that it was true that he had caused Ms Shamim’s death, and that ‘no less than’ 50 individuals have shunned him. The Court emphasised that the Claimant must prove that it was the publication of the statement that caused serious harm to his reputation.

The Court held that there was no evidence to show that it was the statement itself and not the other widespread reporting of the story that had harmed him. The incident was a shocking event that would have been widely spoken about and the Claimant’s involvement in it would have been the subject of rumour, speculation and gossip, leading many to have formed the view that he was guilty of causing death by dangerous driving. In the absence of specific and direct evidence, the court held that the Claimant failed to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the publication of the statement caused serious harm to his reputation.

Judgment

Due to the Defendant’s successful argument on the defences of truth and privilege, and the Claimant’s failure to prove the publication in itself had caused serious harm to his reputation, the High Court found in favour of the Defendant.

*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.

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