Wednesday 28 March 2012

#daftlibel: Carmarthenshire carries on regardless

Golwg, the Welsh-language news and current affairs magazine, carried an in-depth article on the Caebrwyn libel case in its latest issue, and little by little things are becoming clearer.

To begin with, the Golwg article gives a very good and clear summary of Jacqui Thompson's position.

It explains that Jacqui decided to bring an action against the chief executive on legal advice because of statements he made in a letter to the author of a blog called Madaxeman, published by a man in the North of England.

Jacqui told Golwg that Mr James had said disgraceful things about her character and her family in the letter. Because of his senior position, she felt concerned that people who read the letter might believe what he was saying.

Jacqui, who is being represented on a no-win, no-fee basis, is seeking a court order preventing Mr James from publishing anything similar about her and her family in future, an apology and costs.

What this means in plain terms is that the council and the chief executive could have settled easily and very early on at very little cost to the taxpayer. An apology and an undertaking not to act in this way again, along with payment of a modest legal bill, would have brought the matter to an end. Instead, the council decided that attack was the best form of defence, and costs are rising rapidly with each week that passes.

An example of what cases such as this can entail is a recent action in which Chris Cairns, a cricketer, successfully sued for libel over something written on Twitter. The case took two years, and he was eventually awarded damages of £90,000, but the legal costs ran to £1,400,000.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has also called on the council to reconsider its position.

The spokesperson for Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, seems to be getting a little tougher with each interview. This time the official said that there was a risk that public money could be used to prevent fair comment, before adding that the Welsh Government was very clear about this and that it was not happy with the steps being taken by Carmarthenshire County Council.

Whether this will translate into action remains to be seen. A statement from the Minister quoted later in the article says,

Every local authority must act within its powers at all times, otherwise it is open to challenge in the courts.
It is the responsibility of the council to take its own legal advice and to justify any steps it takes. Local authorities should not allow indemnities to enable members or officers to sue for defamation, and the 2006 Order reflects that...if some try to circumvent this in a systematic way, we will consider putting a stop to it.

Carmarthenshire County Council, speaking through its PR agency (yes, it really has one), had nothing new to add, repeating its mantra that it has a right to take this action under the 1972 Local Government Act. It will be interesting to see what the judge has to say about that.

What was rather more interesting was the following summary of the statement from PRSirgar (not a dead horse, but the council's PR outfit):

The council added that it was not trying to prevent fair comment or discussion of the council's activities, but merely supporting an officer financially to take legal action in connection with libel of the chief executive professionally.

In previous statements the council has talked about libel in both a professional and personal capacity, and we can only assume that it has now decided that funding a libel action on behalf of its most senior officer in a personal capacity might run into trouble with the Welsh Government, the courts and public opinion. Who knows? It seems, however, that as usual the council is trying to make up the rules as it goes along.

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