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Council loses trampled flowers libel case

22 December 2010

Slough Borough Council has lost a libel case against a local woman who complained about people deliberately trampling flowers in a park and ended up being entered on the council’s ‘violent persons register’.

The Court of Appeal heard that Jane Clift saw a young boy treading on flowers and complained to his mother. The mother’s male friend responded by trampling on the flowers himself (see, 21 July 2009).

Clift complained to a council anti-social behaviour coordinator, but the conversation went so badly she ended up slamming her phone down and breaking it.

After further comments from Clift about the coordinator, she was put on the council’s ‘violent persons register’ which was circulated to council workers before being copied and sent to around 100 people in agencies working with the council such as the NHS.

Tugendhat J ruled that excessive publication prevented the council from relying on qualified privilege in the case of communications to council staff in unrelated departments and those working for other organisations. The jury rejected the defence of justification and Clift was awarded £12,000 damages.

Lord Justice Ward said the appeal raised the question of how the Human Rights Act 1998 had influenced the council’s defence of qualified privilege. The council argued that all its communications should be protected by qualified privilege.

“While they may, on the one had, be entitled to say they are under a duty of care to their employees to alert them to risks, they are equally under a duty imposed upon them, it is true, by the Human Rights Act to respect Ms Clift’s article 8 right to her reputation and thus under a duty to her not to publish the offending material,” Ward LJ said.

“The court is equally under a duty to ensure that Convention rights are respected. It follows that the duty to Ms Clift not to publish trumps the duty to the supernumerary employees to distribute the entry on the violent persons register. In those circumstances the council cannot maintain its defence of qualified privilege.”

He dismissed the appeal. Lord Justices Thomas and Richards agreed.

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