Qualified Privilege - An Update

Article

23 December, 2010

Jane Clift v Slough Borough Council

On 21 December the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the case of Jane Clift v Slough Borough Council. The decision deals with defences that public bodies can raise to claims of defamation, and restricts them by reference to the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the case Jane Clift was placed on the Council's Violent Persons Register, and her details were emailed to 54 individuals, who were all officers or employees of the Council. The Council claimed that this communication was protected by the Defence of 'qualified privilege'.

Qualified privilege is a defence that is available where one person makes a communication that is defamatory, but does so in circumstances where the person receiving the communication has a legitimate interest in doing so. An example of qualified privilege would be when someone reports their suspicion that a crime has been committed to the police. While the suspicion may be unfounded, and thus the accusation of criminal conduct defamatory, the Police clearly have a legitimate interest in receiving reports of crimes so that they can investigate to that Defence would be available.

However in this case Jane Clift argued that as the Council were a pubic body they were obliged to protect her Convention rights, such as the right under Article 8 to the protection of reputation. While the protection of council employees from violent conduct was a legitimate aim, and thus some infringement of Convention rights could be justified, it had to be legitimate and proportionate. Therefore the wide and indiscriminate dissemination of the details on the register beyond those that needed to know was an infringement of Ms Clift's Convention rights, and was not protected by qualified privilege.

Robin Stephens, Senior Commercial Litigation Solicitor comments, "The clear message from the Court of Appeal is that when public bodies are communicating sensitive information about individuals, there has to be some thought given to who really needs to know this information, and the temptation to distribute to anyone and everyone must be resisted."

For further information please contact Robin Stephens on freephone 0800 689 0831 or contact Robin Stephens by email.

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