Retired solicitor sentenced for McCann contempt

A retired solicitor who published claims that Madeleine McCann's parents caused her death received a suspended jail sentence today.

Mr Justice Tugendhat said 65-year-old Tony Bennett, as former social worker, deliberately flouted legal undertakings, given in November 2009, not to repeat allegations about the couple.
 
He said his conduct was so serious that nothing less than a custodial sentence of three months suspended for one year would reflect the harm he had done.
 
Finding Bennett guilty of contempt of court, the judge added: "I am sure that he intended to allege that the claimants are to be suspected of causing the death of their daughter, and did in fact dispose of her body, lie about what happened and covered up what they had done.
 
"I am sure that he intended his words to bear the other meanings which I have held they do bear. The words are too clear, and the repetitions too numerous, for any other interpretation to be put upon what he did."
 
The judge said he did "not find credible" that, after giving the undertakings, Bennett believed that the proceedings against him would be in the form of a libel action, or that he would be able to attempt to prove the truth of his allegations.
 
"I find that he was deliberately flouting the Undertakings, and that his apology is insincere," said Mr Justice Tugendhat, who was sitting in the High Court.
 
He was satisfied that Bennett, of Harlow, Essex, was in breach of the undertakings in each of the 13 representative instances before the court - out of 153 publications complained of. He was not asked to make findings in relation to the other alleged breaches.
 
The judge added: "It is essential for the rule of law that injunctions and court orders be obeyed. It can't be an answer that the person who is giving an undertaking or subject to an injunction can ignore it with impunity while it is in force."
 
Bennett, who was ordered to pay the costs of the litigation, apologised to the court.
 
He added: "I recognise the distress I have caused on a number of occasions to the claimants. I would like to apologise to them for that distress."
 
The judge said that Gerry and Kate McCann, who had not attended court, had suffered injury to their reputations and feelings and resorted to legal action not to punish Mr Bennett, but to put a stop to his repeated conduct.
 
He agreed with lawyers for the McCanns that Bennett had played "cat and mouse" with them by complying with the undertakings he had given some of the time.
 
"He was testing them with false or disingenuous assurances and demands for explanations to which, as a member of the public with no responsibility for law enforcement, he was not entitled," Mr Justice Tugendhat said.
Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.