News Group wins Baby P libel disclosure from Haringey

News Group Newspapers has won an order forcing Haringey Council to disclose documents which it intends to use in its defence of its Baby P libel battle.

The publisher of The Sun and the News of the World said the documents were needed to fight a legal action brought by social worker Sylvia Henry over articles relating to the death of Peter Connelly.

Henry is suing NGN over 35 separate publications about the case which she claims which mean she was to blame for Connelly’s death through her gross and disgraceful incompetence by allowing him to return to his mother while she was on bail for assaulting him, and by allowing severe and protracted abuse to go unchallenged.

NGN, which pleads justification, applied to Justice Tugendhat for a third party disclosure order that Henry’s employer, Haringey Council, should disclose certain documents, including records of interviews conducted for individuals management reviews of Henry, and other individuals, and a second review of social care.

Tugendhat said any vindication achieved by Henry, who says she wanted Peter Connelly to be taken into care, but that she was overruled by senior colleagues, was likely to have a correspondingly adverse impact on the reputations of others who were concerned in the case.

Haringey Council, which had already handed over a considerable amount of material, argued against disclosure of the documents NGN sought, saying that disclosure would damage the public interest.

The council had argued that disclosure was not “necessary” under the terms of the civil procedure rules, as NGN had already received sufficient disclosure to enable it to advance its case.

The judge said: “Given the apparent clear contradiction between Ms Henry and the other members of her team, it is likely that much will depend on the oral evidence.

‘For that purpose, I think it would be difficult to conclude that it was not necessary, on the facts of this case, to order the disclosure of those documents which are relevant.”

Haringey had also argued that disclosure of the IMRs would be against the public interest – they were intended to enable individuals who were interviewed to discuss and reflect on a case freely and frankly, but individuals might have concerns about press coverage if they believed that IMRs were liable to be disclosed to the public.

But the judge said: “There is a public interest that the workings of local government in child protection matters should be as open as possible to scrutiny and criticism.”

The different interests invoked by the parties had to be weighed in the balance – there was no general answer, Justice Tugendhat said.

This libel case was notable for the seriousness of the issues at stake.

Connelly’s death was “sadly not exceptional”, the judge said, adding that very few such cases gave rise to libel actions.

“The fact that an order may be made in this libel action seems to me to be likely to have a limited impact on interviewees in future IMR interviews,” Tugendhat said.

“That is particularly the case because the application has been made with the active support of one of the interviewees. It may well be that there will be other such libel actions in future, and that this case is not unique.

‘But each case is different and this one must be considered unusual.”

What NGN sought was not publication of the whole of the IMRs and interviews, but those parts which concerned Connelly and the period December 11, 2006 to the end of January 2007.

The parties could also, at any stage of the proceedings, put to the court proposals for limiting the extent to which any part of any document which may be disclosed would be available to the public.

Tugendhat added: “In my judgment the documents of which disclosure is sought may well support the case of NGN or adversely to affect the case of Ms Henry, and disclosure is necessary in order to dispose fairly of the claim, including what is fair to third parties whose reputations may be affected by the outcome of these proceedings.”

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