Blogger faces losing her home after legal fight with council chief executive costs her £220,000

A Welsh blogger faces losing her family home over non-payment of legal fees and damages in excess of £220,000 after losing a libel case three years ago.

Mother-of-four Jacqui Thompson (pictured) said she would “carry on fighting” despite losing an appeal against a court ruling that said she defamed Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mark James in blog posts published in 2011.

Thompson set up her blog, Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and more, in 2009 after a planning dispute with the council that she said piqued her interest in local politics. She became a community councillor a year later.

The 54-year-old made national headlines in August 2011 when she was arrested for using her mobile phone to film a county council meeting from the public gallery.

She was spotted by councillors who called police and was led handcuffed from the town hall to a holding cell – actions that drew criticism from free speech advocates at the time.

Thompson told Press Gazette: “I wasn’t doing any harm, I was just there with my phone. I wasn’t disrupting anything I was just up in the public gallery.

“I wasn’t doing it covertly or anything, I wasn’t hiding the fact, and they asked me to stop and I said ‘no, I’m not doing anything wrong’. I just made a bit of a stand of it really.

“It’s fairly commonplace now and it is pretty much accepted but then it was like witchcraft I think. They stopped the meeting and called the police there and then.

“I said to the police I’m not doing anything wrong but they had me out of there and carted me off to Llanelli police station and made me sign an undertaking never to film at a council meeting again. I didn’t really think at the time but I was fairly keen to get out of there and I did end up signing this thing.

“I was handcuffed from county hall and eventually put in a cell. I’m no threat, I’m a middle-aged woman. It was all a bit bizarre but attracted quite a lot of negative publicity for the council. I don’t think they saw it coming and it ended up with this public argument about the issue.”

Thompson believes it was this negative publicity that prompted chief executive James to “attack” her in an open letter on a rival blog site after being prompted to respond about the filming incident.

The letter was also circulated to councillors. In it, James claimed Thompson had been “running a campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time”.

This led to Thompson filing a libel lawsuit against James and the council. James in turn counter sued over the contents of five of her blog posts, including one that called him “Pinnochio” and others which made reference to “slush funds”.

Thompson lost both cases after trial in February 2013 and again on appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice.

“I was pretty devastated by it all,” she told Press Gazette. “At the time I don’t regret it at all [suing for libel]. I felt very strongly about what he said and I still do.

“He shouldn’t have said what he said and I feel the judgment was totally wrong. It was a very lengthy judgement and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

“There are so many things about it that were wrong but it’s very difficult to overturn these things. If I was a wealthy person I would have taken it further, I would have gone to the Supreme Court, or Europe.”

In his ruling judge Justice Tugendhat said Thompson was guilty of perverting the course of justice – by making false allegations to the police –  which she says voided her insurance and left her with a huge legal bill. The sum owed comprises £31,000 in damages and £191,000 in legal fees for the council and Mark James.

Thompson said she is waiting on court dates over an order-for-sale charge put on her house that means she will have 28 days to vacate before it is sold on at auction. She said she has also recently appeared in court to give a statement on her finances and that bailiffs had been sent to her home.

The blogger told Press Gazette James’s ability to counter sue was fuelled by the council’s decision to fund private lawsuits for its members.

The council’s decision was reviewed by the Wales Audit Office who filed a report in 2014 that concluded: “The decision taken by the executive board, to indemnify the chief executive in respect of the costs of a libel counterclaim, was unlawful and payments made as a result of that decision result in an item of account that is ‘contrary to law’”.

In 2014 the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) established new guidelines for the press and public on attending and reporting meetings of local government. It said: “The use of modern communication methods such as filming, tweeting and blogging should be embraced for enhancing the openness and transparency of local government bodies.”

A spokesperson for Carmarthenshire County Council told Press Gazette: “The council’s response to this case is well documented and a matter of public record having been discussed at full council.

“You may wish to search through council minutes here if you need information/background. The council has nothing further to add.”

Thompson said the legal battle had “taken its toll on both me and my husband”, adding: “It’s been enormously stressful but something keeps going inside me not to give up but keep fighting and keep on with the blog.

“I feel I have done no more than criticise the local authority and that’s why I have carried on [with my blog]. At the end of the day it’s my problem. I would rather try and resolve it myself. I would rather try and fight it.

“What will come of it in the end, I don’t know.”

Picture: BBC

Comments

3 thoughts on “Blogger faces losing her home after legal fight with council chief executive costs her £220,000”

  1. This article is somewhat wide of the mark. The court costs are in relation to a defamation action, not with filming a council meeting or an audit review of money spent on supporting an action by an officer of the council. The fact that those two issues were suspect/questionable does not address the central issue. Those issues are irrelevant to the question of whether the officer was defamed, and the appeal upheld the ruling that he was defamed. The principle in English law is that the losing party pays the costs. The civil procedure rules put in place a mechanism for alternative dispute resolution and also the Rule 36 procedure for settling out of court (and thereby avoiding court costs). Presumably this litigant failed to satisfy the court that she had acted responsibly or reasonably. The statement that she intends to carry on fighting merely invites the other side (and the court of its volition) to pursue the matter to its conclusion. Bloggers need to understand that they are responsible for making defamatory statements, in the sme that broadcasters and publishers are responsible for making amends (or paying the costs) of defamation actions.

  2. Shouldn’t she be receiving an OBE or something like that. I mean in 2011 no filming? How can that be. Now that seems to have changed, did she help to push this major improvement in access and information over the line by herself”
    Where is the UK’s equivalent to C-SPAN?
    Any reason her insurer is not named in the article? I would like to know who that is.
    There is a bit of inevitability here, as after half reading the judgement so much seems to be about the denial of the planning requests and unhappiness surrounding these decisions… (right or wrong across all parties) but now it seems just awful for this person.
    What are the options for legal support from a journalistic NGO in support of freedom of expression? Legal aid? etc.

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