In the recent decision of Thomas Sheridan v News Group Newspapers Ltd the Inner House of the Court of Session (“the Court”) refused a motion by News Group to set aside a decision of a jury and fix a new trial.
Matters in issue:
The decision, which has been widely reported in the media, centres around an award of £200,000 which was made by a jury in favour of politician, Tommy Sheridan. In 2006 the jury found, following trial, that, as a result of a series of articles published in the – now defunct – News of the World in 2004, Mr Sheridan’s reputation had been damaged. The jury awarded Mr Sheridan £200,000 in compensation.
Subsequent to the award being made, criminal charges were brought against Mr Sheridan, who was alleged to have perjured himself by lying under oath during the jury trial. In 2010, following a criminal trial, Mr Sheridan was convicted of perjury, resulting in his imprisonment. News Group’s argued (amongst other things) that the jury had made the award based on the testimony given by Mr Sheridan and that testimony having subsequently found to be unreliable as a result of the perjury conviction, therefore the jury’s award should be set aside and a new trial fixed to determine the matter afresh.
News Group advanced three arguments for setting aside the jury’s award: (i) it was essential to the justice of the cause that the verdict be quashed as unsafe (due to the perjury conviction); (ii) the verdict was contrary to the evidence and (iii) new matters had emerged subsequent to trial which meant that matters should be re-examined.
Mr Sheridan, opposed News Group’s motion and argued that the jury’s decision should stand. Full details of all of the arguments advanced are set out in the decision. After 3 days of submissions, the Inner House refused News Group’s motion and found in favour of Mr Sheridan. The jury’s award will therefore stand.
What does this mean?
In this blog we are only considering the impact of the first argument advanced in relation to whether it was in the interest of justice to allow the jury’s award to stand in light of the perjury conviction. This case has attracted a lot of media attention, predominantly due to the high profile nature of the parties and the salacious allegations which have been made. However, from a legal perspective this case is of real interest because, despite the criminal conviction the Court was still not prepared to set aside the jury’s award. The decision draws on the principles established in the Supreme Court decision of McGraddie v McGraddie  UKSC 58 (discussed in a previous Brodies blog McGraddie v McGraddie) that an appeal court should be slow to interfere with the decision of the judge at first instance who had the benefit of hearing the evidence in the case.
Lady Paton, in the Chair, found that the Court should not set aside the jury’s decision because the question that the jury had been asked was a “jury question” and that the jury would have reached their decision based on their assessment of the evidence that they heard. Her Ladyship stated that the jury’s decision “was likely to have been reached by a route which did not necessarily turn on [Mr Sheridan] being awarded a badge of total credibility, total reliability, nor, indeed, total fidelity.” The jury may therefore well have concluded – based on the contradictory evidence given – that Mr Sheridan had lied to them. Notwithstanding this they still found that his reputation had been damaged by the articles published and that he was entitled to compensation.
This case is not necessarily of an extension of the McGraddie principle, but rather an illustration that even where there are extraordinary circumstances an appeal court is still unlikely to interfere with a decision at first instance (in this case a decision of a jury), because the jury had the benefit of hearing the evidence and making an assessment of the matters before them.