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Jo C.
Jo C., Barrister
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Libel case. I believe I have been libeled in various e-mails

Customer Question

Libel case. I believe I have been libeled in various e-mails and Parish Council minutes. I am a Parish Councillor but was not present when the relevant meeting minutes were taken. The relevant statement is shown below:
“Because the widespread email trail started by Councillor Hinton not only contravenes several articles of the Code of Conduct but also infringe parts of the Equalities Act, the Race Relations Act and the Human Rights Act potentially laying him open to criminal charges, the Clerk, with my knowledge and agreement, sought legal advice from Lincolnshire Association of Local Councils.
I maintain the the statement is untrue. As a serving JP I believe this statement seriously damages my reputation. Do I have a case? I can provide copies of all the relevant e-mails and had requested the statement be withdrawn but now understand the minutes have been approved and hence will soon be public knowledge.
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Law
Expert:  Jo C. replied 1 year ago.
Hi.
Thank you for your question. My name is ***** ***** I will try to help with this.
What is untrue about this?
Customer: replied 1 year ago.

The issue is around a Planning Application for a brownfield site in our village. I chair a community group trying to establish a community shop in the village - included in the site owners development proposals. A majority of the PC object to the proposals despite a public meeting (140 people attended out of a population of 760) which was overwhelmingly in favour. The site owner had advised that as an alternative he was considering selling the site to a group of travellers - quoting the many objections from the Parish Council over the past 10 years plus to his planning applications. As I chaired the public meeting at which this information was made public a number of Cllrs drafted the statement in the minutes of a Parish Council meeting.

Expert:  Jo C. replied 1 year ago.
OK.
So what is untrue about the statement above?
Customer: replied 1 year ago.

The contents of the e-mail I sent - widely distributed around our local community and on which the PC based its comments is shown below:

In both my roles with the Fair Committee and with the Shop Steering Group I have from time to time had contact with the owner of the quarry and his agents. Most recently the Shop Steering Group has been considering an offer from the owner (Dr Burston) to transfer, freehold, a plot of land on Station Road and a substantial sum of money to build a community shop/cafe. Although not the Steering Groups first choice for a shop site we have been held up with planning whilst the wider Planning Application for the development of a "retirement village" in the quarry was considered by SKDC. The Parish Council sent its (majority vote) objections to SKDC on 19 Feb.

Today, I took a call from Dr Burston advising a further complication. He advised that he is seriously considering an offer to purchase the quarry from representatives of a group of Travellers, retaining the extant planning authority for "light industrial" units in the quarry. He made it quite clear that as he has now retired he wishes to conclude his interest in the quarry at the earliest opportunity and this offer could see transfer of ownership taking place with a few months. His frustration with the SKDC planning process was clear as was his disappointment with the lack of support from the Parish Council for the current development plan.

The implications for the village are also clear. If the Travellers gain ownership - and they have every right to buy it, they could/would quickly establish an encampment, possibly constructing accommodation along the lines of the extant planning permission for "light industrial", take up residence and follow up with a protracted retrospective planning application to build a travellers encampment. This information will be in the public domain within a very few days. Obvious outcomes will be an immediate blight on the value of properties in Castle Bytham and probably surrounding smaller villages as well. I am sure many of you will be able to think of other undesirable outcomes. It will put the views of those who object to any development in the Village into the shade once the sale is complete. Moreover this could happen very quickly. SKDC cannot object to the sale and the implementation of the existing planning permission. The subsequent deliberate change of use could create a hiatus that would drag on for years as has been the case in other parts of the country.

Many of you will react to this information with righteous indignation and justifiably so. However, we also have to recognise that the owner of the quarry has been frustrated by the barriers that our local Planning Authority and our Parish Council have erected. When the first proposal to change the outline planning permission from "light industrial" to "retirement village were put forward I did some research into the subject and I attach a brief on my views on the subject, based on that research.

For those of you who do not know me I must emphasise that I have absolutely no financial interest in the project for a retirement village and have only the best, ***** ***** interests of the local community at heart. At the last Parish Council meeting the chair declined to call for a public meeting. I believe this is now imperative.

Please circulate this as widely as possible in the Glenside Community. No doubt my telephone will be humming for a few days. Unfortunately I will be in hospital

Peter Hinton

Tel: *********** /p>

Mob: *********** /p>

Expert:  Jo C. replied 1 year ago.
Thanks.
What I need to know is what is untrue about the statement that he made?
Customer: replied 1 year ago.

Basically, none of my statements in my e-mail to the community nor the verbal briefing given to the public meeting (and prior to that the PC itself) breach any of the Cllrs "Code of Conduct", Equality Act etc. Especially offensive is the remark that "laying him (me) open to criminal charges. The Lincs Association of Local Councils has been asked to comment so I submit that to make inflammatory comments in the minutes ahead of comment by the Local Government Monitoring Officer is unwarranted libel. The LALC had advise that:



  1. It must be made absolutely clear to all recipients of those emails that they were neither originated by, or with the knowledge of the Parish council.

  2. Copies of all emails must be forwarded to the Monitoring Officer for his assessment.

  3. Copies of the emails must be held on file and this fact Minuted at our next meeting.”


I submit that my e-mail to the community makes it clear it does not give any suggestion that it is from the PC.

Expert:  Jo C. replied 1 year ago.
If I am wholly honest, I'm not sure that really amounts to defamation. That is just a comment that is wrong in law if your view of the law is accepted. He clearly has no idea of the law as the Race Relations Act is no longer in force.
However, the act complained of here is not that he said anything untrue but that his conclusions are wrong.
That is something that can amount to a defamation on occasions. I suppose you could argue that the fact that he said that you had breached the Code of Conduct carries an implication that your conduct was sufficient to reduce you in the mind of reasonable people.
In terms of laying you open to criminal charges, if you are a serving JP then we both know the trivial twaddle that can lead to criminal charges in the UK. The public order act and communication legislation achieves very little but to stifle honest debate. It is usually possible to find a trivial crime in any criticism or complaint these days so I am not sure he is necessarily wrong upon that point.
The point is that his comments imply that you have said something racist and you say that you have not. That is always a matter of interpretation and he will probably defend on the basis that this amounts to fair comment. Making false allegations of racism is very news topical at the moment and it is potentially a defamation.
The problem with defamation is threefold. The first is that it is very expensive. The second is that you have to prove that it is not a statement of truth. That is not going to be an issue here though really since it is clear what has been written and the only issue is the conclusion that can be drawn from that. The third problem is that he may try to argue that it amounts to fair comment and then he only has to show that a reasonable person might have held that view.
That said, a letter before action warning of the laws of defamation can often cause people to retreat from the bold position that they took when they thought they were acting with impunity.
Can I clarify anything for you?
Jo
Customer: replied 1 year ago.

Jo, many thanks. Not a wholly unexpected set of advice/comment but good to have it confirmed. I have received substantial public support for my actions and will follow up with a formal letter to the current Chairman (female by the way), setting out my objections to the comments included in the minutes. We are subject to an election next week so things may change over time. As a JP even the suggestion of "criminal" behaviour is especially offensive - hence my request for advice.

Good service, many thanks again.

Expert:  Jo C. replied 1 year ago.
Yes, and you don't have to sue to demand a public apology.
This whole issue of the actions open to the victims of false allegations has been gathering grounds for a while. Obviously not everybody can pay for litigation and not all accusers are worth suing.
More than one allegation can amount to harassment but a one off is not sufficient.
Then you have to drop down upon public apology.

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