Barron & Ors v Collins (Rev 1), Court of Appeal - Queen's Bench Division, February 06, 2017, [2017] EWHC 162 (QB)

Resolution Date:February 06, 2017
Issuing Organization:Queen's Bench Division
Actores:Barron & Ors v Collins (Rev 1)
 
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Case No: HQ14D04882

Neutral Citation Number: [2017] EWHC 162 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 06/02/2017

Before :

MR JUSTICE WARBY

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Between :

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Gavin Millar QC and Sara Mansoori (instructed by Steel & Shamash) for the Claimants

The defendant did not appear, but Mr Mick Burchill was permitted to make representations on her behalf.

Hearing date: 31st January 2017

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JudgmentMr Justice Warby :

  1. This has been a hearing to assess compensation pursuant to the Defamation Act 1996, following the claimants' acceptance of an offer of amends.

    BACKGROUND

  2. The three claimants, Sir Kevin Barron, Rt. Hon. John Healey, and Sarah Champion, are all Labour Party MPs for constituencies in and around Rotherham, Yorkshire. The defendant, Ms Collins, is the MEP for Yorkshire, a member of the UK Independence Party. The claim arises from a speech made by Ms Collins at the UKIP Party Conference on 26 September 2014. The speech was broadcast live on the BBC Parliament channel, and republished in whole or in part on the UKIP website, Twitter, and the Press Association Mediapoint wire service.

  3. On 29 April 2015 I gave judgment after the trial of preliminary issues in the action: [2015] EWHC 1125 (QB). The full text of Ms Collins' speech is set out in paragraph [9] of that judgment, in which I held that it bore three defamatory meanings about each of the claimants:

    (1) That they knew many of the details of the scandalous child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham over a period of sixteen years, in the course of which an estimated 1,400 children were raped, beaten, plied with alcohol and drugs, and threatened with violence by men of Asian origin, yet deliberately chose not to intervene but to allow the abuse to continue.

    (2) That they acted in this way for motives of political correctness, political cowardice, or political selfishness.

    (3) That each was thereby guilty of misconduct so grave that it was or should be criminal, as it aided and abetted the perpetrators and made the Claimants just as culpable as the perpetrators.

  4. I held that the first of these meanings was an allegation of fact, whilst the others were expressions of opinion. For reasons which will become clear, I shall call these imputations ``the Collins Libels''.

  5. On 26 May 2015 Ms Collins' solicitors, RMPI, sent the claimants' solicitors a letter making an unqualified offer of amends on her behalf, pursuant to s 2(1) of the 1996 Act. Section 2(4) explains what an offer of amends amounts to:

    ``An offer to make amends under this section is an offer--

    (a) to make a suitable correction of the statement complained of and a sufficient apology to the aggrieved party,

    (b) to publish the correction and apology in a manner that is reasonable and practicable in the circumstances, and

    (c) to pay to the aggrieved party such compensation (if any), and such costs, as may be agreed or determined to be payable. ...''

  6. By s 4 of the Act, the fact that an offer of amends has been made is a (qualified) defence to defamation proceedings. On 27 May 2015 RMPI filed and served a Defence, settled by Counsel, which relied on the offer of amends as a defence. It further stated that ``It is accepted that the claimants and each of them are entitled to compensation pursuant to the above offer of amends'' and admitted ``that the allegation was serious.''

  7. On 28 May 2015 the claimants' solicitors accepted the offer of amends on their behalf. Ms Collins, via RMPI, had also made a money offer in full and final settlement of the claimants' claims. This was done in a letter sent Without Prejudice Save as to Costs. (The amount is not known to me, as it has properly been redacted). The claimants rejected the WPSATC offer. On 28 May 2015, however, they asked for Ms Collins' proposals as to the steps to be taken to fulfil the offer. In response, Ms Collins' solicitors sent a draft joint statement to be read in court. In this draft, Ms Collins offered to accept that the allegations were ``completely without foundation''. That was on 12 June 2015.

  8. Ms Collins did not, however, make or publish any correction or apology and, the parties having failed to agree on the steps to be taken to give effect to the offer, the claimants took advantage of the machinery for enforcing an offer which is provided for by s 3 of the 1996 Act. They issued an application (``the Assessment Application'') for the court to assess the compensation due to them. That was on 9 September 2015.

  9. The Assessment Application was originally listed for hearing on 18 December 2015. It has eventually been heard over a year later than that. There are three main reasons. The first is that on 9 December 2015 Ms Collins, who was by then a litigant in person, made an application to ``vacate the offer of amends'' (``the Application to Vacate''). The grounds of that application were, in summary, that she had not given informed consent to the making of the offer; that there had been no agreement between the parties; that she had a good defence on the merits, including defences of truth and/or public interest; and that she was in any event immune from suit in respect of the statements complained of by virtue of her role as an MEP. The second reason for the delay is that in conjunction with the Application to Vacate Ms Collins also sought an adjournment of the Assessment Application on grounds of ill-health - an approach she has taken on subsequent occasions. Those factors led to the December 2015 hearing date being lost.

  10. The third reason for the delay is that on 4 May 2016, a few days before the long-adjourned hearing at which the court was to consider the Application to Vacate and, if that failed, the Assessment Application, Ms Collins applied for a stay of these proceedings. Her application was for a stay pending the issue of an opinion by the European Parliament (``EP'') on whether this action infringed her immunities as an MEP. She had raised that issue with the EP just before making the stay application. Once the EP had confirmed to me its receipt of the application I granted the stay, as I was bound in law to do. That was on 16 May 2016.

  11. On 26 October 2016 the EP issued its opinion on Ms Collins' request to defend her immunity as an MEP. This was that the statements complained of were not protected by parliamentary immunity. The stay was lifted. Thereafter, I dismissed the Application to Vacate, fixed the present date for the hearing of the Assessment Application, and dismissed applications by Ms Collins for (1) a further stay of proceedings and/or (2) a further adjournment of the Assessment Application. The stay was sought on the grounds that she was in the process of challenging the EP's decision by way of an application to the Court of Justice of the European Union (``CJEU'') for a review of the legality of the Parliament's decision on her immunities, pursuant to Article 263 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The adjournment application was made on the grounds of ill-health and/or lack of preparation time.

  12. The history that I have just summarised and the reasons for the decisions to which I have referred are set out in detail in my judgments of 16 May 2016, [2016] EWHC 1166 (QB), 20 December 2016 (extempore, no neutral citation), 22 December 2016, [2016] EWHC 3350 (QB), and 27 January 2017 (written reasons attached to my Order of that date).

  13. In the meantime, a related action has proceeded to judgment and an assessment of damages. In Barron v Vines, Claim No HQ15D00453, Sir Kevin Barron and Mr Healey sued Caven Vines, the leader of the UKIP group on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (``RMBC''), for libellous statements he made in an interview broadcast on Sky News on 5 January 2015 (``the Vines Libels''). This was just over 3 months after the Collins Libels.

  14. On 29 April 2015, on the claimants' application, I determined the meaning of the Vines Libels. These were similar to the Collins Libels. They were (1) that the claimants knew for years most of what was going on by way of large-scale sexual abuse of children in Rotherham, and let it go on despite such knowledge; (2) that they thereby let down the children; and (3) that they were still failing to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice. I held that there was no real prospect of a successful defence of the claims, and no compelling reason why they should be disposed of at a trial. I therefore entered summary judgment against Mr Vines for damages to be assessed: see my judgment, [2015] EWHC 1161 (QB). On 18 May 2016 I heard argument on the assessment of damages. On 2 June 2016 I awarded £40,000 to each of the claimants, for reasons set out in my judgment of that date, [2016] EWHC 1226 (QB) (``the Vines Damages Judgment'').

    THIS HEARING

  15. The primary evidence for the claimants consists of three statements served in September 2015 - one each. Ms Collins' written evidence in response was filed in November 2015. It consisted of three witness statements, one in respect of each of the claimants, with exhibits. On 11 December 2015, the claimants filed reply evidence. This consisted of a second witness statement from each of the claimants and, on behalf of Ms Champion, statements from Vanessa Johns and Dawn Elliott. Ms Johns has been Ms Champion's PA and Office Manager since August 2013. Ms Elliott worked for Ms Champion between December 2013 and August 2015, as her Senior Parliamentary Assistant and Research Manager.

  16. The claimants are represented by Leading and Junior Counsel. Ms Collins has not appeared, and is not legally represented. Mr Mick Burchill has attended on her behalf, seeking to represent her. Mr Burchill has no legal training, but is one of Ms Collins'...

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