Western Mail Comment – ‘Councils funding their highly paid officers to bring libel actions is a step too far’

Most people will be uneasy about the decision of Carmarthenshire County Council to fund its chief executive in bring a libel action against a blogger.

The outcome of Mark James’ court case against Jacqui Thompson was that he was awarded £25,000 in damages, with his costs underwritten by the taxpayer.

Whatever the merits of Mr James’ claim – and we do not dispute the judge’s verdict – the case raises fundamental concerns about the nature of our democracy and freedom of speech, as the Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards points out.

Despite what the legal establishment would like us to believe, the law is rarely a level playing field – especially in the civil courts. The quality of a litigant’s representation is often a significant factor in his or her success.

Legal aid, of course, has never been available for libel cases, making it an area of law that has to a very large extent been reserved for the rich and the powerful. In this context, for a local authority to fund its most senior official in bringing a libel action against a local resident of very limited means arguably borders on the perverse.

If our democracy is to be meaningful, people making decisions about how public money is spent must expect to face criticism and opposition from members of the public.

The growth of so-called citizen journalism on the internet has enabled ordinary people to communicate their views much more widely than used to be the case – but it has brought its own hazards. Unlike professional journalists, few bloggers have received legal training or enjoy the back-up of company lawyers. Public authorities are aware of this, and some may be tempted to stifle criticism by waving a big stick.

It is our view that funding highly paid council officers with taxpayers’ money to bring libel actions against local residents is a step too far.

Of course we recognise that public officials against whom unfounded allegations have been made should have the right to clear their name. A reform of our antiquated libel laws is, we believe, the way forward.

The Defamation Bill, currently going through Parliament, provides a much simplified framework that will greatly reduce the cost of libel actions for plaintiffs and defendants alike. It now seems likely, after a number of hiccups, that it will be on the statute book before long.

There needs to be a balance between the rights of individuals to freedom of speech and the rights of professionals to defend their reputation against unfounded allegations.

Publicly-funded libel actions are counter-productive in that they stifle criticism while shoring up the view of sceptics that those with power form a privileged breed apart that will always protect its own – if necessary with taxpayers’ money.

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