Dear Mr Sargeant
I am writing to ask you to urge Carmarthenshire County Council to reconsider its decision to fund a claim for libel being brought by the authority’s chief executive against Mrs Jacqui Thompson, and also to take steps to introduce a measure which will prevent Welsh local authorities from using public money to bring offensive as opposed to defensive actions for defamation in the future.
As you are aware, Camarthenshire County Council, in common with other local authorities, is having to make painful cuts in its services. It is, for example, proposing to cut £33,000 from the funding it provides to enable disabled children to receive respite care. The public will find it very difficult to see how the Council can justify signing a blank cheque to fund what may be an extremely expensive libel case when it is having to make savings of this kind.
I saw from your answers to Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM that you are acquainted with aspects of the case, and the fact that Carmarthenshire County Council would appear to be relying on case law.
As you may be aware, there were significant factors peculiar to that case (R Comninos v. Bedford Borough Council) which played a part in the judgment. Those factors do not apply in the Carmarthenshire case. Moreover, the judge commented:
This case seems to be very much a "one-off", and it was not suggested otherwise in the adjournment debate in the House of Commons. The hazards of defamation actions are, or should be, notorious. Common sense suggests that the council's disastrous experience in the present case should be sufficient to warn-off all but the most litigious of local authorities from granting indemnities in respect of the costs of defamation proceedings brought by their officers.
It seems that Carmarthenshire County Council has chosen to ignore that advice.
No doubt other councils and organs of government across Wales and England will be watching this case with interest; if successful, the James case will form a very dangerous precedent which could throttle free speech and the right of the press and the public to criticise and hold government to account.
I hope you will do whatever is in your power to act quickly and decisively to ensure that the Council reverses its decision.