Defamation claim fails
Caring Times, June 2014
Rochdale Borough Council and its leader, Colin Lambert, have welcomed the decision of the High Court in London to throw out a defamation claim brought against them by two residential care home operators arising from comments made by Councillor Lambert at a Community Forum meeting on 30 May 2012.
The meeting was held following the conviction at Liverpool Crown Court earlier that month of nine men of a range of serious sexual offences, including rape, against over 40 girls and vulnerable young women from the Rochdale area.
In a decision handed down by Mr Justice Bean, the Court ruled that the comments of Councillor Lambert that children are not properly protected were directed plainly at “legislative and systemic defects” rather than criticism of the individual care home operators, Meadows Care Ltd and Pathfinders Childcare Ltd, who had brought the defamation claim. As such he ruled that Councillor Lambert’s remarks were not defamatory of the two companies, who were not even named at the meeting.
Councillor Lambert’s remarks were an expression of opinion “and did not involve an allegation of culpable behaviour or negligence on the part of either of the Claimants or their staff”, the Judge ruled.
The two companies had claimed damages of more than £670,000 as alleged damage to their business by the remarks, but now face a substantial bill for the Council’s and their own legal costs. The Judge ordered £30,000 to be paid by the Care Homes with the balance of the Council’s costs to be paid at a later date.
Speaking following the judgment, Councillor Lambert said: “I’m very pleased with the decision today. I have been a long-standing critic of the care system which sees vulnerable children placed in care homes sometimes hundreds of miles away from their home local authority. I spoke out at the community meeting once again to highlight the issues that had come into sharp focus following these convictions which had come to national prominence.
“As I have made clear throughout, I never intended my criticisms to be taken as reflecting on the individual care homes. I regret that this defamation claim was brought, but once it had been the Council was determined to fight it. On the basis of the decision of the High Court today, it was right to do so
“My reputation has been under scrutiny with this claim and the reputation of Rochdale Borough Council. I encourage people who doubted us at any time to read the full judgement with all associated papers which are attached. It is important that Council leaders who need to speak out about these matters can do so without the fear of legal proceedings. As the Judge recognised, as Leader of the Council, the public can rightly expect me to express opinions frankly and fearlessly. I will continue to do so.”