Barron v Vines  EWHC 1161 (KB)
Mr Justice Warby has held on a summary judgment application brought by two Labour MPs in their defamation claim against a UKIP councillor that the statements made by the defendant were defamatory. The claims concerned comments, made by the councillor during a Sky News interview in January 2015, that alleged the MPs knew for years of the large scale sexual abuse of children in Rotherham, and that they were still failing to ensure the perpetrators were brought to justice.
Warby J had no difficulty establishing that the meaning of the words are defamatory, and, whilst tenable defences had not been put forward, determined that no truth or honest opinion defence was available on the facts. However, summary assessment was not granted on the basis that the councillor had not received legal advice and, consequently, had not had the opportunity to consider a public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013.
Warby J recognised that the defence under section 4 is a new defence, untested by the courts. He offered tentative views that the reasonable belief that "the statement complained of" was in the public interest meant that the defendant required a reasonable belief that it is in the public interest to make the defamatory statement, even if a different meaning was unintentionally imputed. A further opportunity was given to the defendant to take advice as to whether a section 4 public interest defence would be available, to be raised and debated at a further hearing.
Perhaps unfortunately, the defendant elected not to amend his defence in order to plead section 4 and accepted the judgment. We will have to wait for other test cases for further guidance on interpretation and application of the section 4 public interest defence.
Damages will be assessed at a further separate hearing.