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Libel law: Court ruling in Times case restores public interest defence

Five Supreme Court judges yesterday unanimously found in favour of the publishers of The Times newspaper, in a case which appears to restore the defence of 'public interest' in libel cases.

The case was brought by Detective Gary Flood, who works for the Metropolitan police extradition unit. He claimed that he was libelled in a Times article written in 2006 concerning the extradition of Russian oligarchs.

The article claimed that the detective had accepted money to disclose confidential extradition information to a private security firm, ISC Global. Clients of the firm included Russian businessmen who were the subject of extradition requests.

An insider, working at ISC Global, passed a dossier of information to the police and the newspaper. The newspaper later ran the story, including a quote from the investigating police officer which disclosed that a serving officer, Detective Flood, was under investigation for accepting payment in return for confidential police information. The article included the fact that Detective Flood had denied the allegations.

Flood was moved from extradition temporarily, had his private home searched, and was under investigation for some months. By September of 2007 he had returned to his former job in extradition, and was then informed that no charges would be brought against him. Mr Flood then commenced libel proceedings against the paper.

At the first hearing, the High Court evoked the so-called 'Reynolds' privilege. This defence, named after the former Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, allows publication of defamatory material providing that it is in the public interest, and that the publisher has acted responsibly to test the truth of the information.

The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court decision, awarding the case to Detective Flood; however, yesterday the Supreme Court, the highest appellate court in the land, overturned the Court of Appeal decision, declaring that the publication in this case was protected by the Reynolds defence.

In judgment, Lord Mance concluded: "The article, although undoubtedly damaging to DS Flood's immediate reputation, was balanced in content and tone ... It did not assert the truth of the reported allegations of impropriety made by the ISC insider, but it identified them as the basis of an investigation in progress to establish whether there had been any impropriety," he said.

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

What is libel? (FindLaw)