NO one could forget the case of Thompson v James when the blogger Jacqui Thompson was taken through the courts for having written something about the CEO of Carmarthenshire County Council Mark James, which was deemed as libelous. The result was a long drawn out battle in the public arena and the main concern being that Mr James had his side of the case, which he won, funded by the tax payer.
There was outcry from some political circles including Plaid Cymru councillors and it was never quite made clear whether or not the same privilege, i.e. libel indemnity clauses in the council’s constitution would be available to other officers and staff within the council, rather the decision either way had, under Labour, been suspended.
It is understood that the new Labour leader within the council Cllr Rob James wanted to get a conclusive answer to that question at a meeting of the group CRWG, which was held recently.
It has been suggested that the Plaid and the Independent majority on CRWG, have resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office to ask if they could, legally, reinstate the clauses, on the basis that they consider them to be lawful.
Taking to her blog once more Jacqui Thompson has been forthright in her condemnation of those seeking to reinstate the facility whether it be lawful or not as the case may be, depending on whose evidence, or which acts one chooses to act upon.
Ms Thompson points out on her blog that the County Council maintain that ‘the provision is lawful under case law and the vague powers under the Local Government Act of 1972’.
Ms Thompson goes on to write:
“Neither the case law, which in fact does not support such action, nor the LGA 1972 override the express prohibition in section 6(3) of the Indemnities Order 2006.”
On her blog ‘Caebrwyn’ Ms Thompson concludes: “Carmarthenshire Council remains the only council in the UK to have this notorious provision in its constitution, it should be an embarrassment to them all. The failure to remove the clauses, and now, apparently, to seek reinstatement, shows the length they will go to protect the illegal actions of the chief executive and Monitoring Officer.”
Llanelli Online was present in court on the day when the barrister for Mr James a Mr Spackman uttered those words, which in essence said that what Mr James chose to do with any proceeds from winning the case was for Mr James to decide and if he chose to throw it in the gutter then so be it…. in so many words.
The issue of officers and staff having their cases for libel or defamation paid for from the public purse is not one, which sits comfortably with anyone in favour of free speech. Any newspaper editor strapped for cash and there are some we are told, will have some level of protection, however, in the light of such huge sums of money being available to anyone taking issue with the written word the county’s press will be monitoring this one with a watchful eye and ear.
It has been argued that the judgment showed how a public authority can succeed in establishing a qualified privilege defence to the world at large even where a claimant’s Article 8 rights are in play.
A number of cases have been before the courts in recent years which are campaigns of vilification. As the Judge in the case said, such campaigns have existed throughout history but are made easier by the internet.
The Judge recognised that whilst there is always a risk that a libel action might chill free speech which the courts must guard against, where a person maliciously spreads false and defamatory allegations about individuals holding public offices, a libel action may be the best means of establishing the truth and preventing repetition.