Three preliminary issues from two defamation actions arising from the so-called 'Plebgate' affair are to be tried in one joint hearing, a High Court judge has decided.
The two actions are the case in which former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell (pictured, Reuters) is suing News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, over its reporting of an altercation in which he was involved at the gates of Downing Street, and the case in which he is in turn being sued by Pc Toby Rowland, the officer involved in the incident.
Mitchell alleges that he was libelled by The Sun, and that its article, published on 21 September 2012, under the headline "Cabinet Minister: Police are Plebs", which said he had called police "fucking plebs" and "morons" attributed to him abusive terms he had not used.
Rowland alleges that Mitchell defamed him on six occasions between December 2012 and December 2013 in statements in which he accused the officer of fabricating evidence and allegations against him.
Mr Justice Warby said it was obvious that there was a great deal of overlap between the issues which arose in the two actions.
"At the heart of each action is the issue of what was said by Mr Mitchell at the Downing Street gates on the evening of 19 September 2012. Closely allied to that issue, there are questions about whether Mr Mitchell or Pc Rowland has lied about what took place," he said.
"In general terms, it is clearly desirable to avoid the same or similar issues being tried in two or more different actions. The drawbacks are obvious. Trying the same issue twice is inherently wasteful. It involves duplication of time, effort and cost. There is a risk of inconsistent or apparently inconsistent outcomes."
The parties to both actions had now agreed and proposed that three preliminary issues arising in both cases, which were to be tried by a judge alone, should be dealt with at one joint hearing, the judge said.
These issues were: The meaning of the words complained of in both actions, the justification defences pleaded by the defendants in both actions, and Rowland's allegation that at all times Mitchell knew that the allegations he was making against the officer were baseless.
Mr Justice Warby said: "Subject to some minor modifications and qualifications I made an order for the trial of those issues.
"I was persuaded that the proposal met the important objectives of avoiding inconsistent findings and duplication.
"I was persuaded that these issues encapsulated, in a sufficiently clear and well-defined way, issues the determination of which stands a reasonable chance of resolving the disputes between the parties and thereby saving resources.
"I also bore in mind the public interest in focusing resources on ascertaining the truth of the allegations and counter-allegations about these events which have attracted so much publicity, involving as they do a senior politician and a police officer."