De mortuis nil nisi ... the advice of a good solicitor

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The Independent Online
I am glad to welcome back our legal expert Jason Wellbeloved (of the firm of Wellbeloved, Wellbeloved, Wellbeloved and Smellie) to answer your inquiries about the legal aspects of this confusing modern world in which we live. All yours, Jason! A reader writes: Now that Frederick West is dead, and can no longer be brought to trial, we shall probably never know the truth of the allegations against him. What I want to know is this: can we now refer to him as "the serial killer Frederick West" or is there some unseen legal objection to this?

I mean, can we assume a dead man to be guilty of crimes, even though he was never proved to be so in a court of law? If I say "the serial killer Frederick West", am I guilty of some kind of posthumous libel? Do I have to go on using some clumsy circumlocution such as "the alleged mass murderer Frederick West" or "the once-popular Gloucestershire builder Frederick West who towards the end of his life was also accused of many murders, though never of shoddy workmanship as far as his building was concerned"?

Jason Wellbeloved writes: These are all very tricky areas. My advice to you is to go to a good solicitor and hire his services - better still, to consult a specialist and pay through the nose.

A reader writes: Or does it wear off after a certain time? I mean, people often refer to Attila the Hun as "the barbarian conqueror and mass murderer" and you never hear the legal profession stir uneasily in their sleep and say, "Well, of course, Mr Attila was never incriminated in any court of such crimes, and indeed under Hunnish law there was a good chance that what he did was perfectly legal, so I don't think we really ought to refer to Mr Attila as the author of massacres and pillages ..." So, if itis all right to refer to Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan and, indeed, the late Adolf Hitler as mass murderers, is it not all right now to call the late Frederick West a mass murderer? At what stage does posthumous libel turn into historical truth?

Jason Wellboloved writes: These are all very tricky areas. My advice to you is to go to a good solicitor and hire his services - better still, to consult a specialist and pay through the nose.

A reader writes: Another thing. What is the legal status of a court's decision ? For instance, if a court decides that a man is not guilty of a murder, does that become the truth? And can one be arrested for doubting it? If I say that I think that so-and-so, cleared by a jury of a murder charge, was actually as guilty as hell, can I be sued for libel? Is it a crime to suggest that a jury got it wrong? For instance, if I think that in a libel case concerning someone like Lord Archer, or Robert Maxwell, or the Yorkshire Ripper's wife, the jury came to the wrong decision, is it illegal for me even to suggest the possibility of it?

Jason Wellbeloved writes: These are all very tricky areas. My advice to you is to go to a good solicitor and hire his services - better still, to consult a specialist and pay through the nose.

A reader writes: Take another example. If someone is sent to jail for a crime - let us say, something to do with buying and selling Guinness shares - and during that time we refer to him as the man who committed all those crimes during the Guinness sharebusiness, and later an appeal turns up evidence to show that he didn't commit those crimes, and he is then freed, did all the things that we said about him at the time he was guilty constitute retrospective libel now that he is innocent? And can he thensue those people who said he was guilty at the time, on the grounds that he is now innocent?

Jason Wellbeloved writes: These are all very tricky areas. My advice to you is to go to a good solicitor and hire his services - better still, to consult a specialist and pay through the nose.

A reader writes: Similarly, if I were sued for libel for having suggested that a jury had got it wrong in a libel case, could I defend myself on the grounds that an appeal would have overturned the verdict? And another thing. What if some evidence turnedup to show that a man who was cleared of a murder charge really did commit the crime? Is it libel to refer to a man as innocent when he is really as guilty as hell?

Jason Wellbeloved writes: These are all very tricky areas. My advice to you is to go to a good solicitor and hire his services better still, to consult a specialist and pay through the nose.

Jason Wellbeloved's telephone answering machine will be back soon to deal with some more of your legal problems.

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