HomeInsightsWiggin is successful in summary judgment application to High Court in libel case

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The claimant, Carol Carruthers, brought claims against the defendants, Associated Newspapers Ltd (for whom Wiggin acted) and News Group Newspapers Ltd, for libel, misuse of private information and alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The claims arose from publication by ANL on the MailOnline website and by NGN in The Sun (print and online) of articles concerning Ms Carruthers, who was Deputy Assistant Director of Children’s Safeguarding and Head of Services for Children In Need of Support and Protection at Haringey Council at the time of publication. Haringey Council had been at the centre of a scandal after failures had led to the death of two children: Victoria Climbie, eight, in 2000, and Baby P in 2007.

The articles published stated that Ms Carruthers had sent sexual texts and images of herself to a man she had met on an online dating site while she was at work.

Following publication of the articles, Ms Carruthers was suspended from her position at the Council. She subsequently resigned.

ANL and NGN issued an application for trial of the following preliminary issues: i) the meaning of the words complained of; and ii) whether the words complained of were statements of fact or expressions of opinion. They also applied for summary judgment in relation to Ms Carruther’s libel claim on the grounds that she had no real prospect of succeeding with her claim. They said that there was no real prospect that their defence of honest opinion would fail.

Ms Carruthers believed that the juxtaposition of the allegations made against her about the sending of messages and photographs with reports of the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases might lead some readers to make a connection between the two matters. However, Mr Justice Nicklin did not agree, finding that the hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader, having read the whole of the relevant article, could not conclude that Ms Carruthers was in any way connected with the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases, other than the fact that she worked for the Council.

Nicklin J said that the historic failures in relation to Baby P and Victoria Climbie happened over between 11 and 18 years ago, whereas the events concerning Ms Carruthers were recent events and the basis of (and reason for) publication of the articles. The ordinary reasonable reader would not understand The Sun print and online articles to allege that Ms Carruthers posed a “serious danger and risk to vulnerable children in her charge”. That was a, “forced and unreasonable meaning”, the judge said.

Nicklin J found that the meaning of the articles was that: i) Ms Carruthers, who held a senior post in Haringey Council, whilst at work, had sent several sexual messages and images she had taken of herself to a man she met on a dating website; and ii) the sending of these messages and images, whilst she was at work, was inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour for someone in her position.

In Nicklin J’s view, the first statement was factual and not defamatory, and the second statement was an expression of opinion. In each article, the fact that Ms Carruthers had sent the messages/pictures whilst she was at work was not something that was stated to be a breach of the Council’s rules. Therefore, the expression of condemnation was a value judgment. It was not a requirement for any potential honest opinion defence, but in this instance, readers of each article could make up their own minds about whether they thought the conduct of Ms Carruthers was worthy of the expressed criticism.

As for the summary judgment application and the defence of honest opinion under s 3 of the Defamation Act 2013, Nicklin J noted that the defendant must show that three conditions are met: i) the statement complained of is a statement of opinion; ii) the statement complained of indicates the basis of the opinion; and iii) an honest person could have held the opinion on the basis of any fact that existed at the time the statement complained of was published.

Nicklin J’s finding that the second statement in the articles was an expression of opinion meant that the first condition under s 3 was satisfied. There was also no dispute that the second condition under s 3 had been met.

As for the third condition under s 3, Ms Carruthers had filed a witness statement in which she accepted that she did send sexual messages and photographs, whilst she was at work, to someone she had met on a dating website. In Nicklin J’s view, it was clear that an honest person could express the opinions in the second statements made in the articles based on the facts admitted in Ms Carruthers’ own evidence. Therefore, Ms Carruthers had no real prospect of succeeding on the issue and the third condition under s 3 had been met.

Ms Carruthers also confirmed that, in relation to her claim against NGN, she would not advance a case of “dishonesty” under s 3(5). She did not make a similar concession in relation to the claim against ANL, but in Nicklin J’s judgment this did not alter the position. If Ms Carruthers were to have a real prospect of defeating the defence of honest opinion, then she would have to advance a case under s 3(5) that had a real prospect of success. The burden of doing so was on her and she had not attempted to do so. In reality, she had no real prospect of doing so, Nicklin J said.

Accordingly, both defendants were entitled to summary judgment. (Carol Yvonne Carruthers v Associated Newspapers Ltd [2019] EWHC 33 (QB) (14 January 2019) — to read the judgment in full, click here).