Mother loses libel case over book

Jury rules in favour of barrister who detailed child abuse in autobiography
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The mother of a judge lost a libel action against her daughter yesterday over an autiobiography detailing a childhood of beatings and cruelty so unbearable it led to a suicide attempt.

Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, 74, had claimed the allegations in Ugly, by Constance Briscoe, a barrister and part-time judge, were "fiction" and the pair had enjoyed a loving relationship within a happy family of 11 children.

This contrasted with Ms Briscoe's account of her childhood – written in the hope of inspiring those in similar circumstances – in which she said her mother had called her "ugly" so often that she had later used her student grant to pay for plastic surgery.

Her "strict disciplinarian" mother would beat her with a "split-split stick" for wetting the bed, taunting her with names like "Miss Pissabed", and had made her sleep in wet bedclothes. She had twisted her breasts and caused lumps that she later had removed and had cut her with a knife during a row when she was nine. Ms Briscoe cried as she described how she had attempted suicide by drinking bleach, saying "my mother spent a lot of time telling me that I was a germ and I thought that if I drank it, that would be OK".

After a day of deliberation, the jury at the High Court in London decided in favour of Ms Briscoe, 51, and her publisher, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, who brought out her memoir in January 2006. Both had denied libel and said the book was substantially true.

Ms Briscoe, of Clapham, south-west London, burst into tears on hearing the verdict. She said she was happy with the result. "It is sad that my mother still feels the need to pursue me. Now I just want to get on with my career. I would like to thank all my readers who have sent me messages of support, including the very many children who provided helpful advice.

"I can quite understand why my family went into collective denial but whilst child abuse may be committed behind closed doors, it should never be swept under the carpet."

Hodder & Stoughton stated it was "pleased" with the outcome and "very proud" to be Ms Briscoe's publisher.

"Her books Ugly and Beyond Ugly have touched hundreds of thousands of readers, many of them children," a statement said. "Sadly, as we know from the news over the past few weeks, child abuse is all too common and nothing and no one should ever stand in the way of the truth."

Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell, of Southwark, south-east London, left court without making any comment.

During the hearing, she said Ms Briscoe as a child had "loved her mammy because she loved her food and she loved her mother because there was no father around ... it was always mammy, mammy, mammy".

She denied all the allegations of verbal and physical abuse, saying she was "the slave in the house", but one who loved caring for her children. Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell was often distraught in court, saying her "heart was breaking". Another of her daughters, Patsy Briscoe, testified that the book was a "disgraceful" lie,

Andrew Caldecott QC, for Ms Briscoe, said Ugly detailed events that took place between 1964 and 1975, when Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell was not a vulnerable, elderly lady, but a woman in her prime.