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Judge warns MPs over privilege abuse

13 June 2011

Mr Justice Tugendhat has uphelda privacy injunction banning the press from identifying a woman with whom former RBS boss Fred Goodwin allegedly had an affair while at the bank.

The senior media judge allowed The Sun newspaper to publish a job description of the woman but not her name or other elements that could lead to her identification. For now, she remains known only as VBN.

Neither Goodwin, because of his position as chief executive of one of Britain’s largest publicly quoted companies, nor VBN could have “a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the bare fact of their relationship”, he said.

Her identity, however, should not be revealed because of well-founded fears of intrusion “likely to cause distress to her which would constitute an abuse of the freedom of the press which the pressing social need of a democratic society require should be curbed”.

But ruling in Goodwin v NGN (VBN interested party) [2011] EWHC 1437 QB Tugendhat J questioned the use by MPs of parliamentary privilege to out public figures involved in events covered by privacy orders.

The spat between judges and parliamentarians started on 19 May when Lord Stoneham identified Goodwin as the man who had applied for a so-called super-injunction which would prevent not only his name from being disclosed but also the very existence of the case.

Tugendhat J – who was hearing the original application – lifted the anonymity order in respect of Goodwin later that day, allowing papers to name him.

In today’s decision (9 June), he said: “Lord Stoneham was frustrating the purpose of the court order and thus impeding the administration of justice, but he was doing so under the protection of parliamentary privilege.”

He continued: “If he had identified Sir Fred Goodwin in words spoken outside parliament he would have been interfering with the administration of justice, or committing a contempt of court, as it is called.”

Tugendhat J also relied on a 2002 case against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights in which an MP had repeated complaints by constituents about a “neighbour from hell”. The name of the neighbour in question was subsequently printed in the local newspapers. Although she denied the truth of most allegations against her, she received hate mail, was abused by people on the street, and eventually had to be re-housed and her children had to change school.

“Before the Strasbourg court the applicant sought to challenge the doctrine of parliamentary privilege in so far as it provides an absolute defence to a claim for defamation. She failed,” the judge said.

He added: “But the Strasbourg court recorded that there is no means by which a person may obtain redress for any injustice or harm a person may suffer by reason of being named in parliament, and in the consequential press reports of the parliamentary debate… The MP never tried to communicate with her regarding the complaints made about her by her neighbours, and never attempted to verify the accuracy of his comments made in his speech either before or after the debate.

“The result of her being named in parliament in this way was catastrophic for her and her family,” he warned.

In a report on privacy injunctions on 20 May, Lord Neuberger expressed similar concerns over the reach of parliamentary privilege.

Both the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice, speaking on the publication of the report, said an MP speaking out in parliament was no justification for lifting an anonymity order.

The row between the bench and Westminster was reignited on 24 May after John Hemming MP named Ryan Giggs as the celebrity at the centre of another privacy case involving former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas.

Goodwin applied for an order after he was contacted by a journalist about the alleged affair with VBN.

The Sun initially claimed that VBN had been promoted while Goodwin was still at the helm at RBS. The paper said that with the bank being bailed out at the time there was public interest in publicising the likely conflict of interests. The claim was later abandoned when it turned out VBN had not been promoted.

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