Government says Rutland County Council cannot sue for defamation

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The Minister for Justice has said Rutland County Council would not be able to sue three of its members for defamation.

The council had been considering the action against Coun Dave Richardson, Coun Richard Gale and Coun Nick Wainwright of Rutland Anti-Corruption Group but voted to pursue other action.

The council’s solicitors had advised that the powers given to local authorities in the Localism Act 2011 had overturned a previous ruling on them suing for defamation, made by the House of Lords in a case involving Derbyshire County Council and Times Newspapers.

Speaking to the House of Lords’ Grand Committee on Thursday last week, Lord McNally said: “My officials have explored the issue with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for the 2011 Act. The Government are in no doubt that if a case were brought, the courts would still find that local authorities cannot bring action in defamation.

“The decision in Derbyshire was reached on public policy grounds, which we considered remain compelling. The House of Lords found that it would be contrary to the public interest for organs of government to be able to sue in defamation, and that it would be an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.”

He went on to say the Secretary of State could intervene. He said: “An order could be made preventing any action being brought in defamation.”

Rutland County Council held a special meeting on January 10 to discuss the outcome of an investigation by public law solicitors into what it called “reckless and serious allegations” made by the members of the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group.

The council voted to authorise legal action to seek an injunction to prevent harassment of the chief executive and other officers by the group, to support staff wishing to take legal action in their own name for harassment by the group, to introduce a single point of contact through the council’s internal e-mail and to authorise sufficient funds to support these actions.

Councillors agreed to defer a decision on taking other action including suing for defamation.

Legal experts are currently preparing the council’s case for an injunction.