A local authority has decided to defer acting on lawyers’ advice that recent changes in policy allow it to sue critics for defamation. Rutland county council said today that following a council meeting last night ‘the option of taking legal action for defamation is not being pursued at this time’.
Rutland had raised eyebrows in local government circles by revealing that it had received legal advice that, under the new ‘general power of competence’ granted by the Localism Act 2011, local authorities had the power to sue for defamation.
This would be contrary to the decision in Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers (1993), where the Lords ruled that ‘not only is there no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel, but that it is contrary to the public interest that they should have it’.
The council took advice, from local government law firm Bevan Brittan, following criticism by councillors known as the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group.
At last night’s meeting, the council decided to seek an injunction to ‘prevent harassment of the chief executive and other officers by the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group and its members’. A decision on a defamation action had been ‘deferred to be potentially considered at some point in the future’.
It said the decision was taken against the backdrop of a detailed legal report produced by Bevan Brittan, which said the actions of the Anti-Corruption Group were ‘damaging the ability of the council to recruit outstanding officers, hampering efforts to secure external funding for education and recreation, and distracting senior officers from doing their job’.
The council’s leader, Roger Begy, said the decision sent a ‘strong message’.
‘We have a chief executive and staff team who are simply doing their jobs to the very best of their ability. Of course they should be subject to scrutiny and challenge as that is the basis of local democracy. However, they should not have to put up with false allegations about their conduct and regular questioning of their integrity and honesty.’