Sunday Times libel trial over Cruddas 'cash for access' claims due to start on Tuesday

The libel battle between former Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas and the Sunday Times is set to reach the courts next Tuesday.

Mr Justice Tugendhat has rejected an application from the paper asking that a different judge conduct the trial. He also rejected an application for proceedings to start on 22 July because he said that it would leave insufficient time before the end of the legal term on 31 July.

Cruddas is suing the Sunday Times over three articles published in March last year after a meeting with two of the newspaper's undercover journalists, posing as representatives of Middle Eastern investors with funds in an account in Liechtenstein.

He is suing both the newspaper and reporters Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake for defamation and malicious falsehood.

He claims that the defamatory meaning of the words published in the story was that in return for cash donations to the Conservative Party, he corruptly offered for sale the opportunity to influence government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers.

Cruddas further claims that the articles meant that, to circumvent the law, he was happy for the foreign donors to use deceptive devices to hide the true source of the donation.

The Sunday Times argues that that the articles – which were based on covert recordings – only meant that what Cruddas said in the course of the meeting was "inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong and gave rise to an impression of impropriety".

In February, Mr Justice Tugendhat struck out the Sunday Times’ defence of justification (that its stories were true) disagreeing with the paper definition of the meaning of the stories.

However last week this was overturned at the Court of Appeal meaning that the case can go to full trial.

The newspaper applied to Mr Justice Tugendhat to recuse himself from the case because of various criticisms of his decision on meaning made by the Court of Appeal, and because he had already expressed a view of the evidence in his previous judgment.

Tugendhat said: "After considering the submissions of the parties on individual points, it is necessary to stand back and consider the question which is at issue … in the circumstances of this case, would a fair-minded and informed observer conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, the two being the same, that the tribunal was biased?

"In my judgment the answer is no.

"Judges in particular (but everyone else who holds any position of responsibility) regularly have to bring a fresh mind to questions that they have considered previously, and they regularly have to change their minds when faced with new arguments or new facts.

"Here the issues in the case have changed to the extent that the Court of Appeal upheld the defendants' appeal. I have not yet heard any evidence, and I have not made any findings of fact …” 

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