The BBC has reported that Rutland Council could be the first local authority to sue for defamation. Lawyers claim the council’s reputation had been damaged and suggested they could sue using the powers the Council now has under the Localism Act 2011.

This threatens a long standing principle of English law that prevents local councils from suing for defamation.

“The Derbyshire county council v Times Newspapers Ltd judgment of 1993 specifically rules out local authorities from suing for libel. As Lord Keith said in the judgment: “It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism”.” [This protection is called “the Derbyshire Principle”.] Guardian, 14 February 2012

Where it went wrong
The Localism Act 2011 was intended to reduce red tape for local councils … so where did it all go wrong. Supporters of the bill were eager to reduce legal hurdles that stopped local councils innovating. One of these perceived barriers was a rule which states that a council cannot legally do something unless it is expressly authorised by law (this contrasts with the position for a private person who is allowed to do anything unless the law says he or she cannot). To eliminate this rule Section 1(1) of the Act says “A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.” and it is this clause which puts the Derbyshire Principle at risk.

Why you should care
You should care because:

(1) Anyone who supports freedom of speech and/or freedom of the press and/or hates corruption and incompetence should be greatly concerned about this threat to our previously well established right to criticize local councils as corporate bodies without fear of a defamation action being taken against us.

(2) Defamation actions in the UK are incredibly complex and expensive. In the words of the Libel Reform Campaign: “The potential cost of defending a libel action is prohibitive”. When a council loses a defamation case against a local newspaper or blogger its costs will be paid for out of your Council Tax and other taxes. Many bloggers and journalists will be put off by the potential cost and you simply won’t see the story.

(3) The UK’s defamation laws are bad enough already which is why we have attracted ‘libel tourism’.

(4) Do you really want the secretive and influential City of London Corporation being able sue for damage to the Corporation’s reputation?

(5) It is dangerous precedent to allow local councils to sue for defamation – the next step could be allowing Central Government bodies the same powers.

How can I help to stop this?
I don’t have all the answers but here are my initial thoughts:

(1) There is a Defamation Bill and a Crime and Courts Bill currently before Parliament so write to your MP and tell them that you are extremely concerned about this threat to a long standing principle of English law.

  • Ask your MP to put forward an amendment to one of the bills already before Parliament to put this important civic right on a solid legal basis.
  • Ask your MP to consider proposing an early day motion on this issue – an early day motion is a bit like a petition that MPs and only MPs can sign – it will help to highlight the issue.
  • Ask your MP to ask a written question to the Government about whether the Localism Act 2011 means that the Derbyshire Principle no longer applies?

(2) Raise awareness – tweet and blog about this issue and encourage others to take action.

(3) Write to one of the Lords interested in defamation law and ask them to help secure this important right.

Acknowledgements
Thank you to Ganesh Sittampalam for an email which made me sit up and take notice of this issue.