Law Report: Local authorities cannot institute libel actions: Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd and others - House of Lords (Lord Keith, Lord Griffiths, Lord Goff of Chieveley, Lord Browne-Wilkinson and Lord Woolf), 18 February 1993

It was contrary to the public interest that organs of government, whether central or local, should have the right to sue for libel because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.

The House of Lords dismissed an appeal by the council from the Court of Appeal's decision (the Independent, 21 February 1992; (1992) QB 770) that a local authority cannot maintain an action for libel.

Articles appeared in the Sunday Times on 17 and 24 September 1989 which questioned the propriety of certain investments made by the council in administering its superannuation fund. They alleged that the council leader, David Bookbinder, was a prime mover in deals made with a 'media tycoon', Owen Oyston. The council, Mr Bookbinder and Mr Oyston brought actions for libel against the publishers of the Sunday Times, its editors and the journalists who wrote the articles. Mr Oyston's action was settled by an apology and payment of damages and costs.

The council claimed that it had been injured in its credit and reputation and had been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt and had suffered loss and damage. The preliminary point of law was whether a local authority is entitled to maintain an action for libel for words which reflect on it in its governmental and administrative functions.

Charles Gray QC and Heather Rogers (Kingsford Stacey) for the council; Anthony Lester QC and Desmond Browne QC (Biddle & Co) for the Sunday Times.

LORD KEITH said that there were only two reported cases in which an English local authority had sued for libel: Manchester Corporation v Williams (1891) 1 QB 94, which decided that the statement of claim disclosed no cause of action, and Bognor Regis Urban District Council v Campion (1972) QB 169, where the council was awarded damages.

The authorities established that a trading corporation was entitled to sue in respect of defamatory matters which could be seen as having a tendency to damage it in its business. Defamatory matter about trade unions might adversely affect the union's ability to keep members or attract new ones. Similar considerations could no doubt be advanced in connection with the position of a local authority.

There were, however, features of a local authority which might be regarded as distinguishing it from other types of corporation, whether trading or non-trading. The most important was that it was a governmental body. Further, it was a democratically elected body, the electoral process nowadays being conducted almost exclusively on party political lines.

It was of the highest importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism. The threat of a civil action for defamation must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech. 'The chilling effect' induced by the threat of civil actions for libel was very important.

Quite often the facts which would justify a defamatory publication were known to be true, but admissible evidence capable of proving those facts was not available. That might prevent the publication of matters which it was very desirable to make public.

A number of departments of central government in the United Kingdom were statutorily created corporations, including the Secretaries of State for Defence, Education and Science, Energy, Environment, and Social Services. If a local authority could sue for libel there would appear to be no reason why any of those departments was not also entitled to sue.

But there were rights available to private citizens which institutions of central government were not in a position to exercise unless they could show that it was the public interest to do so. The same applied to local authorities.

In both cases, it was right for the House of Lords to lay down that not only was there no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel, but that it was contrary to the public interest that they should have it. It was contrary to the public interest because to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.

In the case of a local authority temporarily under the control of one political party or another it was difficult to say that the local authority as such had any reputation of its own. Reputation in the eyes of the public was more likely to attach itself to the controlling political party, and with a change in that party the reputation would change.

A publication attacking the activities of the authority would necessarily be an attack on the body of councillors representing the controlling party, or on the executives who managed its affairs. If any individual reputation was wrongly impaired by the publication, any of those could himself bring proceedings for defamation. Further it was open to the controlling body to defend itself by public utterances and in debate in the council chamber.

The conclusion must be that under the common law of England, a local authority did not have the right to maintain an action of damages for defamation. There was no difference in pirnciple between English law on the subject and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It followed that Bognor Regis UDC v Campion was wrongly decided and should be overruled.

LORD GRIFFITHS, LORD GOFF, LORD BROWNE-WILKINSON and LORD WOOLF agreed.

Ying Hui Tan, Barrister

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are