Political group’s reaction to Government’s view on defamation action

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A political group which was told it could be sued by a council has given its reaction to a Government minister’s view on the situation.

Rutland County Council had been considering suing councillors Dave Richardson, Richard Gale and Nick Wainwright, of Rutland Anti-Corruption Group, for defamation but is now pursuing other action.

However the Minister for Justice, Lord McNally told the House of Lords last week that it was the Government’s view that local authorities could not sue for defamation.

In response to Lord McNally’s comments, Coun Gale, the leader of the group, questioned the legal advice given to the council.

He said: “Perhaps we should be looking at the whole report again. People just need to recognise that we are not moving on this.

“I think with the Lords making that comment we need to go back a few steps and reappraise the situation.”

A council spokesman said as defamation was not an option currently being explored, it had no comment to make.

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 last week, the Minister, 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 also said 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 to discuss 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 preparing the council’s case for an injunction.