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Law Report: 3 DECEMBER 1997; Rapist is allowed to continue his defamation action

An action for defamation by a convicted rapist serving a life sentence against a woman who had denied, in statements to the police, his claims of a past personal relationship between them, should not have been struck out on the grounds either of abuse of process or of public policy.

Daniels v Griffiths; Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Hirst, Lord Justice Swinton Thomas and Sir Brian Neill) 27 November 1997

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal of the plaintiff, David Anthony Daniels, against an order striking out his claim for damages against the defendant, Mrs Lynne Griffiths, as an abuse of the process of the court.

The plaintiff had pleaded guilty to a charge of rape in 1983 and had been sentenced to life imprisonment. In June 1994 his application for release on parole was refused. In February 1994 he had issued a writ claiming damages for slander against the defendant, with whom he claimed to have been engaged in a personal relationship, alleging that she had defamed him by saying to police officers and others that there had never been any form of relationship between them; that the plaintiff was fixated with her; and that she was concerned for her safety should he be released from custody.

Cherie Booth QC and Wayne Beard (Smith Llewellyn Partnership, Swansea) for the plaintiff; Christopher Vosper (Douglas-Jones & Mercer, Swansea) for the defendant.

Sir Brian Neill said that the judge had held that the plaintiff's action was an abuse of the process because it had been instituted for a collateral purpose, namely an attempt to persuade the Parole Board that it had reached a wrong decision based on inaccurate and untruthful evidence; because it was designed and intended to harass and embarrass the defendant and to cause her further expense; and because it had no prospect of success.

In the present case, as his counsel had made clear, the plaintiff's claim that he had had a personal relationship with the defendant had been unwavering. The authorities, he claimed, treated him as though he had made up a completely fictitious account of the relationship between himself and the defendant and, he contended, unless he could establish the true position by means of the present proceedings, he had no prospect of correcting that misconception and therefore no realistic prospect of obtaining parole.

The plaintiff's action faced formidable difficulties, but the defendant had not demonstrated that it was bound to fail, and it would not be right to reject as unfounded the plaintiff's assertion that he had brought the proceedings to establish the truth and clear his name. There was an issue to be tried which could not be resolved by means of affidavit evidence alone.

The court had also invited submissions as to whether the action should be struck out on grounds of public policy. It seemed quite clear from a consideration of the history of the Parole Board and its present constitution and functions that its proceedings could not be regarded as part of the proceedings of a court of law. The absolute privilege which attached to such proceedings would not therefore apply.

The primary submission made on behalf of the defendant was, however, that the statements she had made to the police had been made in connection with possible criminal proceedings against the plaintiff, and were therefore entitled to immunity on the principle recognised and explained in Taylor v Director of the Serious Fraud Office (unreported, 22 July 1997).

It might be that when the matter was fully investigated it would be found that all the relevant statements made by the defendant to the police related to a possible offence by the plaintiff. On the other hand, it might be established that she had made statements in two separate contexts, some being directed to her complaints about the plaintiff, and some being in answer to enquiries by the police concerning the plaintiff's application for parole. It would, however, be wrong to reach a final conclusion on the present state of the documentary evidence, and in those circumstances it would be wrong to strike out the plaintiff's claim on public policy grounds.

- Kate O'Hanlon, Barrister