MP expenses libel action versus Standard thrown out

A libel case brought by a former Tory MP in the wake of the expenses “scandal” has been thrown out by the High Court.

Jacqui Lait represented Beckenham before she announced, in September 2009, that she would not stand in the 2010 election to make way for a younger candidate.

In November 2009, Lait put her name to a letter published in The Times expressing concerns by female MPs about the possible consequences of recommendations contained in the Kelly Report into reforming expenses, which led to an article in the Evening Standard which she said was defamatory.

She complained it meant that her public opposition to a reform banning additional expenses for MPs living within reasonable commuting distance of Westminster could be regarded as hypocritical and not motivated by concern for the safety of women MPs, or was apt, rightly, to provoke public anger.

Today, Mr Justice Eady ruled in favour of the claim by Evening Standard Ltd that its fair comment defence was “bound to succeed” and gave summary judgment in its favour.

The paper had argued that people may well be angered, not so much because of hypocrisy, but because MPs who had claimed expenses under the old system should “slink away in shame and keep their mouths shut” in relation to proposals for reform.

The judge noted that not just the public, but also party leaders, took the approach that MPs should shut up and take their medicine.

“Even though some suggested at the time that this may have been governed by electoral or public relations considerations, rather than by principle or natural justice, it illustrates how difficult it now is in this context to argue that no reasonable citizen could feel legitimate anger at the behaviour of their elected representatives.

“This is not, of course, specific to Mrs Lait. It would apply to each and every one of her co-signatories – as well as most other MPs.

“In the case of each MP, there will have been his or her own expenses claims, and they will no doubt differ considerably; yet the criticism is not based wholly on individual figures but largely upon the suggestion that, merely by taking advantage of the `overly-generous’ system, they have forfeited the right to be heeded any longer on that topic.

“For these reasons, a jury of 12 citizens, which would no doubt include voters and taxpayers, could – at the least – come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the failure to establish hypocrisy, the rather ill-formulated observation about justifiable `ire’ constitutes fair comment.”

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