Bedfordshire on Sunday hails High Court victory

Lowe: happy with split on costs

Bedfordshire on Sunday is claiming a substantial victory in the High Court at the end of a case involving Bedford Borough Council officers, which has run up legal costs in excess of £1m.

Mr Justice Gray rejected libel claims against the paper and local Conservative Party agent Stewart Lister by the council’s monitoring officer, Michael Gough, and lawyer Andy Darkoh, who works in the council’s legal department, on the basis that the allegedly defamatory imputations against them were "substantially justified".

He did, however, award council chief executive Shaun Field £20,000 compensation from the paper and £7,500 from Lister, who issued a press release containing the allegations at the centre of the case.

In making the award, the judge said: "I bear in mind the risk that heavy awards of damages may chill freedom of expression."

The case came in the wake of a council election on 4 May 2000, in which a Tory candidate won by only nine votes, before discovery of an overlooked envelope of 86 postal votes.

After they were counted, the majority over the Liberal Democrat candidate was reduced to six.

The local LibDem leader later approached Field, the election’s returning officer, and Gough on the question of a full recount.

Lister sent a press release to BoS, headed "Maladministration at Bedford Borough Council" making allegations relating to the council’s handling of the matter.

The paper then published two stories and the three men sued Lister and BoS.

The judge said: "I am driven to the conclusion that the defamatory imputations made against Gough and Darkoh were substantially justified."

But he added that the position of Field was different as it had been alleged he was guilty of political bias.

"The defendants do not allege that there is any truth in the imputation. It follows that the defendants are liable to Mr Field in damages," the judge said.

Costs of the case are likely to be more than £1.25m.

Mr Justice Gray ruled the claimants must pay 80 per cent of costs incurred by BoS and the newspaper is to pay 20 per cent of their costs.

BoS editor Steve Lowe said: "This is a substantial victory for Bedfordshire on Sunday against the council. Had the council won, it would have driven a coach and horses through the rule that has been in place since Derbyshire versus The Times that councils cannot sue.

"I think the 80-20 split on costs is a clear indication of the strength of our victory."

By Roger Pearson and Jon Slattery

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