High Court refuses to strike out libel claim brought by individual employees engaged in business of a governmental body – McLaughlin & others v London Borough of Lambeth & Khan [2.11.10]
Under the principle established by the House of Lords in Derbyshire v Times Newspapers Ltd , a “governmental body” cannot sue for libel. Similarly, a “governmental body” has no rights under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which concerns respect for private life. In this case, the High Court considered whether these principles apply to individual employees, engaged in “the business of a governmental body”.
The Claimants are the present and former head teachers, along with the chairman of the board of governors, of Durand School in Lambeth. In late 2007/early 2008 the Defendant local authority, through its chief internal auditor, sent three emails to several parties, including the Department of Children, Schools and Families and a local MP. The Claimants alleged these emails were libellous publications and issued proceedings.
The Defendants applied to strike out the claim on the basis that the emails concerned the running of the school, so the proper Claimant was the school itself and that the issue of proceedings by three individual claimants was simply an attempt to circumvent the Derbyshire principle and the school’s lack of Article 8 rights. The Defendant also complained that the dominant purpose of the claim was not the vindication of the individuals’ reputations but to bring pressure to bear on the local authority, as part of a long-running and particularly bitter dispute with the school.
The Judge held that the Derbyshire principle did not prevent an individual claimant bringing a claim in their own name, or in respect of their personal Article 8 rights, simply because they were employed in the business of a governmental body.
The Judge did not determine the issue of what would happen in a case where the libel complained of related to the carrying out of official functions: in this case, there were allegations of financial impropriety which brought into question the integrity of the individual Claimants and could impact on their private lives and reputations.
Although the application to strike out the entire claim was rejected, part of the claim was found to be unnecessary, disproportionate and brought for a collateral purpose. The Judge indicated he was minded to strike out these unnecessary aspects of the claim: no application was made in this respect but the claim is likely to be considerably curtailed when it next comes before the court.
Sadly, this case may have opened up the possibility that the Derbyshire rule will not apply to all claims brought by public authorities and that Article 8 may increasingly be invoked by individual claimants employed by a governmental body. However, whilst the judgment opened arguments as to who may bring a claim, it once more reiterated that libel proceedings should not be used as an excuse to air historic grievances in public.