Chase v News Group Newspapers Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Justice Brooke,Lord Justice Rix,Lord Justice Keene
Judgment Date03 December 2002
Neutral Citation[2002] EWCA Civ 1772
Docket NumberCase No: A2/2002/1281
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Date03 December 2002
Elaine Chase
Respondent/ Claimant
Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd
Defendants/ Appellants

[2002] EWCA Civ 1772


Lord Justice Brooke

Lord Justice Rix and

Lord Justice Keene

Case No: A2/2002/1281




Eady J

Stephen Suttle (instructed by Russell Jones & Walker) for the Respondent

Richard Spearman QC (instructed by Daniel Taylor) for the Appellants

Lord Justice Brooke

This is an appeal by the defendants against so much of an order made by Eady J at a case management conference on 31st May 2002 as directed that paragraph 12 of the defence and the particulars pleaded under that paragraph be struck out in their entirety.


I am happy to adopt the judge's exposition of the relevant facts. The claimant's nursing qualifications include that of state registered sick children's nurse. She was formerly employed as a paediatric community sister by the South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust ('the Trust').


Her claim relates to articles published in issues of the Sun newspaper dated 22nd and 23rd June 2000. The claim form was issued on 15th June 2001 and the particulars of claim served on 18th September of that year. The allegations made were towards the highest level of gravity for defamation litigation and undoubtedly received enormous prominence. The articles were extensive, and the judge summarised them in the terms I set out below.


On the front page of the newspaper for 22nd June there was a large headline "Nurse is probed over 18 deaths: World Exclusive". The article said that she was suspected of overdosing terminally ill "youngsters" with painkillers. It identified the children concerned as nine boys and nine girls, aged between eight weeks and 17 years.


The article went on to describe the nurse concerned as being unmarried and in her forties. It did not name her, but it is the claimant's case that the circumstances were such that even at that early stage a significant number of readers would identify her. The nurse was said to have been suspended the previous year. It was said, too, that Essex police were seeking assistance from Lincolnshire detectives who had been involved in the notorious case of Beverley Allitt (described by the Sun as "the Angel of Death"), who had been in 1993 convicted of murdering a number of children in her care.


Attention was drawn to a two page spread inside, which was published under the heading "Exclusive: Nurse probed over 18 child deaths: A graveyard holds the secret". The theme is continued with the introductory words: "Six tiny graves in a children's cemetery hold the key to the mystery deaths of 18 youngsters". Although the deaths were not seen as suspicious at first, the Sun went on to allege: "But now it is suspected that they might have been given huge overdoses of morphine or other painkillers". It added: "The case already has echoes of the crimes of killer GP Harold Shipman".


The nurse was alleged to have been suspended following a letter of complaint over serious misgivings about her professional conduct which, according to a mother, "jeopardised and compromised" her son's treatment. There followed an inquiry in which her colleagues were interviewed as well as the parents of some child patients. Reference was made to internal reports seen by the Sun, one of which referred to the nurse's mood swings and to episodes of aggression and "self-isolating behaviour".


It was alleged that senior health service officials then went to the police, following the inquiry, and told them that the nurse was suspected of accelerating the deaths of 18 children. There was further reference to the cases of Harold Shipman and Beverley Allitt in the context of the help sought by Essex police from the Greater Manchester and Lincolnshire police.


The Beverley Allitt analogy was pressed further because she had "injected her victims with chemical drugs and tried to suffocate them". The Essex nurse, too, said the Sun, would have been able to administer morphine (subject to various safeguards).


The article went on to quote "a health source close to the inquiry" as saying that "she was suspended so that her capacity for doing harm would be eliminated". There was a good deal more about the suffering of parents, and comments from a doctor to the effect that the medical profession does not have the "legal right to play God with the lives of terminally ill children and take a decision on when their lives should end". He referred to Dr Shipman giving a single dose of morphine or diamorphine and described it as "almost the perfect murder method".


There were then two separate sections under the sub-headings respectively of "Allitt" and "Shipman", reminding readers of how those trusted professionals had murdered patients.


The Sun's allegations, it seems, were republished in this jurisdiction and in many other places around the world. This was made clear the following day. On page 2 of the issue for 23rd June there was a piece headed "Blockbuster Sun" in which many such republications were listed.


The meaning attributed in the particulars of claim to the material published on 22nd June was that there were very strong grounds to suspect the claimant of having serially murdered at least 18 terminally ill children entrusted to her care and of having behaved in a evil manner comparable to the behaviour of Beverley Allitt and Harold Shipman. The defendants do not assert that the words are incapable of bearing such a meaning.


The Sun returned to what it described as its "sensational scoop" on 23rd June. A photograph of the claimant appeared on the front page. Because of an injunction obtained the previous evening her face was obscured. There was a caption describing her as the "Woman at centre of 18-death probe". The photograph was also described as the "First photo of the Nurse" and, moreover, as "the first picture of the nurse being investigated over the deaths of 18 children". The story is then developed: "Cops are probing claims – exclusively revealed by the Sun – that terminally ill youngsters aged eight weeks to 17 years were given overdoses of painkillers". It was revealed that 20 detectives were working on the case, but that, although this nurse was said to have been "suspected by NHS bosses last year", police had not yet interviewed her. The point was also made that they had "no power to prevent her leaving the country".


Police were said to have visited the homes of every family involved in the probe; that is to say, the parents who had suffered the loss of a child. It was added, "But the parents were only told of the inquiry by cops on Wednesday after the Sun had learned about it". The judge was told that the reason for that was simply that the police wanted to tell the parents rather than leave them to pick up the story from the media. The police did not think it right at that time to alarm the parents or add to their anguish since they had no sufficient basis to do so. Their hand was, in effect, forced by the Sun.


In addition to the extensive article on pages 1 and 4 of that issue, there was other coverage on pages 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7. On page 2 there was a piece referring to the "Blockbuster Sun", and to the previous day's scoop. It claimed that it was "followed up across the world – proving yet again that Britain's favourite newspaper is simply Sun-beatable". Its desperate rivals were scrambling to catch up. The heading asserted "Another fantastic scoop as our desperate rivals droop". On pages 4 and 5 there was a two page spread under the heading "Probe into 18 child deaths: She was brutal". There was then a piece which referred to complaints made by a particular mother. The defendants' plea of justification in relation to this piece was not the subject of a strike-out application, and in the interests of brevity I will not summarise the effect of what was written about this particular case.


Three meanings were attributed to the 23rd June articles. The first was the meaning relied upon for the previous day's coverage (see para 13 above). There then followed two additional meanings relating to the description of the individual mother's case, which gave rise to a plea of justification in paragraph 13 of the defence. This sub-issue is not of any relevance to the present appeal.


The defence (served on 26th November 2001) contained a plea of justification. This was sub-divided in paragraphs 12 and 13 between the two Lucas-Box meanings relied upon. In paragraph 12, which the judge was to strike out, the defendants said that the articles meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the claimant of involvement in hastening the deaths of child patients. The particulars of justification said to support that defamatory meaning were pleaded in the following terms:

"(1) The claimant, a paediatric community nurse, was suspended by the South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust on 28 th September 1999, following a letter of complaint to the Trust dated 24th September 1999 from the mother of a patient known to Ian Hepburn only as 'JA'.

(2) The mother's complaint was that she had serious misgivings about the professional conduct of the claimant, which she claimed had jeopardised and compromised her son's treatment. She also alleged that her son's confidentiality had been breached by the claimant.

(3) Following the complaint, the Trust began its own internal investigation, which is still continuing at the date hereof. That investigation was into alleged abuse of power by the claimant which...

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