Judge rules: Charity Commission report covered by qualified privilege

A report published by the Charity Commission for England and Wales is clearly protected from an action for defamation by common law qualified privilege, a High Court judge has held.
Justice Eady made the decision as he struck out a defamation claim brought against the Commission over publication of its report of an inquiry into the East End Citizens’ Advice Bureau (EECAB).

One of EECAB’s trustees, Dr Adu Aezick Seray-Wurie, sought to sue the Commission for libel, claiming that its entire report was defamatory of him, and meant that he had abused his position as trustee and chair of EECAB and was guilty of serious offences of fraud.

He also who listed other causes of action in his claim form, including breach of his human rights, discrimination, harassment, abuse and misuse of power, although, said Mr Justice Eady, apart from the libel claim, the particulars of claim shed no light by providing details of how the other causes of action were said to be made out

The Commission, which would have pleaded justification had the case gone to trial, argued that the report was protected by common law qualified privilege.

In his decision the judge detailed the statutory background to the establishment of the Commission, which acts as a watchdog and regulator for charities, pointing out that it had the power to instate inquiries, and to publish its reports.

It was “clear against the statutory background I have set out above that the Commission was indeed under a duty to publish the information concerning its inquiry into EECAB, and the wider public had a legitimate interest in receiving that information”, he said, adding: “There is accordingly no doubt, in my judgment, that the occasion of publication here complained of was protected by common law qualified privilege.”

Dr Seray-Wurie had also claimed malice in the publication – which, if proved, would defeat the defence of qualified privilege.

Mr Justice Eady said: “Malice is always a serious allegation to make and is generally regarded as tantamount to dishonesty.”

But findings of malice were very rare – “In order to survive, allegations of malice must go beyond that which is equivocal or merely neutral. There must be something from which a jury, ultimately, could rationally infer malice; in the sense that the relevant person was either dishonest in making the defamatory communication or had a dominant motive to injure the claimant.”

He went on: “In this case, as so often occurs, the claimant is effectively inviting an inference of malice because the conclusions in the report do not accord with his own account and/or because he claims that those involved have been participants in a conspiracy to do him down.

“If the Claimant were to have a realistic prospect of defeating the defence of privilege by reason of malice, he would need to set out some factual allegations going to support bad faith on the part of one or more of the individuals concerned, and/or to support his conspiracy theory. There is nothing which comes close to that.”

He concluded: “In the result, there is no evidence before the court which would justify me in coming to the conclusion that the material available is more consistent with the presence of malice than with its absence.

“Since, as I have said, the situation was clearly covered by common law privilege, there is no reason to allow this claim to go forward, as there is no realistic prospect of success; nor is there any other compelling reason why the case should be allowed to come to trial. It is important that time and money, and especially public time and money, should be prevented from being wasted.”

He gave summary judgment on the defamation claim to the Commission, and struck out the references in the claim form and particulars of claim to other causes of action as disclosing no reasonable grounds.

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