Who is the claimant?
The claimant is Mr Tim Yeo, former Member of Parliament for South Suffolk.
What were the allegedly defamatory publications?
Mr Yeo's claim relates to articles published in the Sunday Times on 9 and 23 June 2013. The 9 June article was headlined "Top Tory in new Lobbygate row" with the sub-headline "MP coached client before committee grilling". The article concerned allegations that Mr Yeo used his leadership of House of Commons climate and energy change committee to push his private business interests.
The 23 June article entitled "Lobbyist 'wrote peer's speech" did not refer to Mr Yeo by name but referred to a Parliament investigation of “three lords and a select committee chairman … after The Sunday Times revealed that they were selling themselves as parliamentary advocates for paying clients". Mr Yeo argues that those who had read the 9 June article would have understood this as a reference to him.
What is the defamatory meaning?
In an earlier judgment, Mr Justice Warby held that the 9 June article had the following defamatory meaning:
"(1) was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act in a way that was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate who would:
- push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a fee of £7,000 a day; and
- approach Ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client’s private agenda in return for cash;
(2) by behaving in the manner referred to in the articles had acted scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest."
The 23 June article held the defamatory meaning that:
“Mr Yeo had been selling himself as a Parliamentary advocate for paying clients and had thereby offered to act in a way that was in breach of the rules of the House of Commons”.
Does this case fall under the Defamation Act 2013?
No. The articles were published before 1 January 2014 and therefore are being tried under the pre-existing common law. This will be one of the last defamation cases heard by the courts under the common law.
What is The Times' defence?
The Defendant is relying on three defences under the common law:
- Justification: the Defendant will seek to prove the substantial truth of the defamatory 'sting' of the articles, i.e. that Mr Yeo had been selling himself as a Parliamentary advocate in breach of the rules.
- Fair Comment: only in relation to the 9 June article, the Defendant will argue that the comment by the journalists which wrote the article was explicitly or implicitly, at least in general terms, based on the facts which were true.
- Reynolds privilege: based on the criteria set out in Reynolds v Times Newspapers, the Defendant will argue that the subject matter of the articles was in the public interest and that the journalists acted responsibly in respect of both the factual investigation and writing of the articles.
What damages can Mr Yeo expect if he wins?
A successful libel claimant will be awarded compensatory damages, which serve to remedy the claimant's distress and any loss flowing from the libel as well as vindicating the claimant's reputation. In determining the level of damages to be awarded, the court will take into account the injury to the claimant’s feelings, the gravity of the libel, the extent and nature of the publication and whether there are any mitigating factors. Exemplary damages may be awarded in exceptional circumstances to punish a defendant for its misconduct (e.g. deliberately making a defamatory statement for profit).
The 'ceiling figure' for libel damages is around £275,000, but such figures only apply to the most serious allegations. The highest award of general damages in the past 10 years was £175,000 in respect of unfounded allegations of human trafficking (Al-Amoudi v Kifle).
Cruddas v Calvert was a case involving similar allegations of 'cash for access' in respect of a Member of Parliament and the claimant was initially awarded general damages of £180,000. However, this was subsequently reduced to £50,000 on appeal because certain allegations were held to be true (see our article on this appeal here).