Murderer fails in Daily Mirror libel bid

An attempt by a man serving a minimum jail term of 22 years for the murder of a woman in a raid on a jeweller's shop to sue the Daily Mirror for libel failed when a High Court judge struck the case out.

Mr Justice Eady held that the case was an abuse of process, and had also been brought outside the limitation period.

The claimant, convicted killer Peter Williams, sought to sue over an article which appeared in the newspaper in August 2007, under the headline "Under the Gunn", with a sub-heading which read: "How one man's evil rule of terror and killings kept a city in fear for decades", claiming that it led to fellow prisoners identifying him as a "grass" or police informer.

The story dealt with the activities of "ruthless crime boss" Colin Gunn and referred to Williams in relation to the death of Marian Bates, who was killed in a raid at her shop in September 2003, saying he confessed to police about the raid, organised by Colin Gunn.

The newspaper applied to strike the action out on a number of grounds.

Victoria Jolliffe, for the newspaper, argued that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim, that it was an abuse of process, and that it failed to identify a defamatory meaning.

The newspaper also applied for summary judgment on the ground that Williams had no real prospect of success as the limitation period had expired and there was no compelling reason for the case to go to trial.

Mr Justice Eady said in a decision handed down today that Williams wrote to the newspaper in February this year suggesting that he intended to sue for libel, and issued proceedings in April.

He failed to include the words complained of in the claim form, but this would be capable of correction by amendment, the judge said.

"It emerges from the particulars of claim that the claimant's case is that the article led to his being identified as a 'grass', or police informer, by fellow prisoners. He also complained of the allegation that he was a henchman of Colin Gunn," Mr Justice Eady said.

The first issue was the imputation that the claimant was a police informer, "which he says has caused great embarrassment to him and to his family", the judge said.

"Ms Jolliffe submits that if words only damage a claimant's reputation in the eyes of 'the criminal fraternity', that is not sufficient to establish a cause of action. An allegation needs to lower the relevant claimant in the eyes of right-thinking people generally."

It was plain from the authorities that as a matter of public policy the allegation that Williams was a "grass" was incapable, in the present context, of bearing a defamatory meaning.

On the allegation that Williams was a "henchman" of Colin Gunn, the newspaper had argued that the case was an abuse of process as Williams would be unable to demonstrate that a "real and substantial tort" had been committed, as required under the principles identified by the Court of Appeal in Jameel (Yousef) v Dow Jones Inc ([2005] QB 946).

Mr Justice Eady said the abuse of process doctrine had not been used much in libel cases, at least successfully, but a recent example was the judgment of Mr Justice Tugendhat in Lonzim Plc & others v Sprague ([2009] EWHC 2838 (QB)), in which he had struck out the claim, holding that there was no evidence of any substantial tort committed within the jurisdiction.

He went on: "I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those cases where it is right for the court to rule, having regard to the claimant's background and serious criminal convictions, that it would be inappropriate to regard the article in the Daily Mirror and its references to him as constituting a 'real and substantial tort'. I would, therefore, uphold the application based on abuse."

On the limitation issue, he judge said the claim was clearly out of time, and there was no reason for the court to disapply the limitation period, even if an application for it to do so was made.

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