In May 2011, I wrote about the epic libel battle between a south London primary school, Durand Academy, and Lambeth Council. Durand had been funding a defamation action over three emails in which Lambeth’s Chief Auditor raised concerns about the school’s management. At the time, costs in the case were already believed to have exceeded £100,000.
This week it was announced that the case had finally reached a happy conclusion. On 25 June, the day that the full libel trial was due to begin, Durand’s barrister stood up in court and announced: “The claimants feel they have achieved the purpose for which they brought these proceedings and can now draw a line under this matter.” (See statement below)
Whereas the claimants had been concerned that a briefing note sent round by Lambeth’s then Chief Auditor, Mohammed Khan, had made “a serious allegation of financial impropriety,” the defendants had made it clear that “it was never Mr Khan’s intention to make such an allegation, which they accept would have been quite untrue”. The defendants also accepted that “the claimants were upset by the contents of the briefing note, and they regret this”.
All good then. This unfortunate misunderstanding has now been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Except that, given the nature of English libel law, to get this far both sides will have had to spend enormous amounts of money. Interim judgements like this one don’t come cheap. In the previous libel case Durand were involved in — against the father of a former teacher at the school — their side alone incurred legal fees of over £244,000.
Given that in the latest case both Lambeth and Durand are state-funded bodies, whoever is picking up the inevitably substantial tab, the taxpayer seems destined to be the loser. It is still difficult to find a better illustration of the urgent need for libel reform than the case of Durand Academy.