Police cannot use secret papers as libel case 'shield'

POLICE OFFICERS accused of corruption should not be able to milk newspapers for libel damages simply because documents that could prove the officers' guilt were protected by public interest immunity, the Lord Chief Justice ruled yesterday.

Making an unprecendented ruling in the Court of Appeal, Lord Taylor ordered that the documents, currently held by the Police Complaints Authority, should be disclosed to a Coventry newspaper to help it defend a libel action against two former members of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.

The two officers, Detective Constables David Woodley and Roger Clifford, have already received pounds 40,000 in damages from the Independent, the Guardian and the BBC in similar libel actions. These actions were over claims that the two officers interfered with the course of justice by stealing interview notes about the case of Michael Bromell, who was jailed for four years for wounding on evidence supplied by squad members.

But last month Lord Taylor presided over the successful appeal of Mr Bromell, who maintained that his confession was fabricated. During that appeal, Lord Taylor was given documents held by the Police Complaints Authority which led him to conclude that there was a 'very real possibility' that the two officers had taken the interview notes that could have proved Mr Bromell's innocence.

In February 1990, the Director of Public Prosecutions, having examined the same documents, decided not to prosecute the two officers. Coventry Newspapers Ltd (CNL) is seeking to obtain these documents to help fight the libel action. But the authority has resisted on the grounds of public interest immunity, fearing that disclosing them to a newspaper could deter people from coming to it in future investigations.

But yesterday Lord Taylor said: 'If, as both CNL and the wider public now have every reason to suspect, these documents appear to point clearly towards corruption on the part of named officers, it is surely not to be tolerated that those same officers should continue to mulct the press in damages whilst the courts disable their adversaries from an effective defence by witholding the documents from them.'

Sitting with Mr Justice Simon Brown and Mr Simon Roche, he said they did not accept that those who had co-operated with the Police Complaints Authority and knew of the appeal court's grave suspicions about the officers 'would truly prefer to remain anonymous and watch these officers prosper in their libel action', than have the matter fully and fairly argued in court.

'As was suggested in argument, that would indeed be to swallow the elephant and strain at the gnat,' he said.

The judges said they were not opening the floodgates to disclosure of documents which would normally retain their public interest immunity. 'The documents here are proposed for use not as a sword, but as a shield.'