Stephen Doyle v Patrick Smith

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeMr Justice Warby
Judgment Date02 November 2018
Neutral Citation[2018] EWHC 2935 (QB)
CourtQueen's Bench Division
Docket NumberCase No: HQ17D00435
Date02 November 2018
Between:
Stephen Doyle
Claimant
and
Patrick Smith
Defendant

[2018] EWHC 2935 (QB)

Before:

THE HONOURABLE Mr Justice Warby

Case No: HQ17D00435

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS LIST

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Richard Spearman QC (instructed by Taylor Walton LLP) for the Claimant

Guy Vassall-Adams QC and Aidan Wills (instructed by HCB Solicitors Ltd) for the Defendant

Hearing dates: 15–17, 22 October 2018

Judgment Approved

Mr Justice Warby

Introduction

1

Planning disputes often generate complaints of defamation. That, no doubt, is because planning applications involve change, and often propose interferences with property, neighbourhoods, views or landscapes on which individuals place high value. These issues can cause heightened emotion, including anger. Often there are dark suspicions about the conduct and motives of others. Public denunciations are common. This case is no exception.

2

The claimant, Stephen Doyle, is a property developer by occupation. The defendant, Patrick Smith, is a resident of the Bedfordshire village of Caddington. He single-handedly operates an online community newspaper or Blog called the Caddington Village News (“the News”). He is also a Caddington parish councillor.

3

In 2015, Mr Doyle formulated a proposal for Luton Rugby Football Club (“the Club”) to move to a new ground. It would sell its premises in Newlands, Luton, and buy and develop a new ground and facilities on a greenfield site near Caddington. Mr Doyle was to be the buyer of the Newlands site, and the seller of the site near Caddington, which he planned to acquire from its then owner. These libel proceedings stem from articles that Mr Smith wrote and published in the News, which were critical of Mr Doyle in the context of this proposal.

4

There were four such articles:

(1) An article published in November 2015, headed “ Luton RFC wants to move to Caddington Village” (“the First Article”);

(2) An article published on 13 July 2016, headed “‘ The £10 Million Fraud’.. Stephen Doyle accuses Luton RFC of sending false documentation to members” (“the Second Article”);

(3) An article which was available to be read on and after 19 July 2016, headed “ Stephen Doyle has been Arrested” (“the Third Article”);

(4) An article published on 31 July 2016, headed “ Mr Doyle has been interviewed by police that involves the LTRFC” (“the Fourth Article”).

5

Mr Doyle originally complained of libel in the first three of these articles, and all four remain relevant in one way or another; but the trial has been directly concerned only with the Second and Third Articles. It is they that are complained of as libellous. In summary, Mr Doyle complains that the Second Article accused him of involvement in the perpetration of a fraud of up to £10m on the members of the Club, and that the Third Article meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect him of blackmail and sending malicious communications in connection with his proposal.

The issues

6

The main issues arising from the statements of case, which I now have to decide, are these:-

(1) In relation to the Second Article: (a) its natural and ordinary meaning; and (b) whether its publication is protected by the defence of publication on a matter of public interest (Defamation Act 2013, s 4);

(2) In relation to the Third Article: whether, having regard to its allegedly minimal circulation and other factors, its publication caused or was likely to cause serious harm to reputation (Defamation Act 2013, s 1);

(3) In relation to each of these Articles, if it arises: the quantum of damages.

7

There were other issues in the case. Before proceedings were brought, Mr Smith was maintaining that he had only written the truth. In his initial Defence, filed on 22 May 2017, he pleaded the defence of truth. But that was abandoned by amendments made on 3 November 2017. Those amendments introduced other defences, including but not limited to the ones I have mentioned. But on 2 October 2018, a further change of position was announced by the defendant's side, and several of those lines of defence were dropped. The main changes are that the defence no longer takes issue with the pleaded meaning of the Third Article; defences of common law qualified privilege are no longer advanced, (with the result that “malice” is no longer formally relevant); and it is no longer said that the Third Article is protected by the statutory public interest defence. These changes in the defendant's case have significantly reduced the issues for trial.

8

Mr Smith has however sought to raise a new issue. It relates to the Third Article. He now wishes to argue that even if Mr Doyle were to persuade me that the publication of that article satisfies the “serious harm” requirement in s 1 of the 2013 Act, the claim in respect of that article is nonetheless a “ Jameel” abuse of process ( Jameel (Yousef) v Dow Jones Inc [2005] EWCA Civ 75 [2005] QB 946).

9

I directed that all these changes of position should be formally set out in a draft Re-Amended Defence, which was done. There was no opposition to the deletions I have mentioned, and I grant permission for those. However, Mr Spearman QC, for the claimant, opposed the late introduction of the abuse of process issue. I heard the arguments in support of this new line of defence without prejudice to my decision on whether it was open to Mr Smith. I held that issue over to this judgment, and I will return to it.

The evidence

10

This has been a relatively short trial, at which I have heard oral evidence from only four witnesses. Apart from Mr Doyle and Mr Smith, I have heard from Peter Foster, a member of the Rugby Club who was involved in dealing with Mr Doyle's proposal, and Simon James, Managing Director of DLP Planning Limited (“DLP”), a firm of planning consultants engaged by Mr Doyle's company, Templeview Developments Limited (“Templeview”). In addition, I have had hearsay written evidence in the form of a witness statement from Linda Doyle, the claimant's wife, who was not well enough to attend court. Although the trial documentation filled six lever arch files, only some of this had to be referred to. Nonetheless, the evidential exploration was detailed and the evidence and argument took up the best part of four days.

A narrative, Part I

11

What follows is either undisputed, or represents (and explains) my conclusions on the relatively few disputes of fact that matter. I confine the narrative to facts that are directly relevant by way of background. I shall not deal here with a number of factual points that were disputed in cross-examination on both sides, but which in my judgment did not go to the issues for decision.

Mr Doyle makes a proposal to move the Club

12

Mr Doyle has been in the property development business since 1987, and has owned and run Templeview since 1995. His wife is also involved in the company as a co-owner and, since 2003, a director. Their business involves acquiring land and obtaining planning permission before either selling on the site with the benefit of the permission, or building residential properties for sale or rent.

13

The Club has premises at Newlands Road in Luton, consisting of pitches and other playing facilities, a clubhouse, car park, and telephone mast. Templeview has owned land to the north of the Club's site since 2006. In 2011, the company enlarged its holding by buying an additional strip, 20m wide, between its existing northerly holding and the Club's site. This enabled the company to seek permission for a residential development on the combined holding. Full planning permission was granted in March 2015, to build 394 flats on this land.

14

When he first approached the Club, Mr Doyle had wanted to buy more land, but the Club did not want to lose its pitches. He kept an interest in the site, however, believing it had enormous development potential. In late 2014, he heard a rumour that the Club was in financial difficulties, and early in 2015 he came up with the idea of offering to buy the Club's site and sell it an alternative in the locality. He was able to identify a site he thought would be suitable, and establish that the owners of that land had an interest in selling enough land to make his scheme viable. This site was at Zouches Farm, Chaul End Lane, Caddington. That is some 3.5km from Newlands Road. It was at about this time that Mr Doyle contacted DLP for advice on his scheme.

15

Mr Doyle approached the Club, believing that he would be able to secure permission for up to 800 residential units on its land, in addition to the 394 flats for which he had previously obtained permission. The Club appointed a sub-committee to consider the proposal. It had three members: Keith Butten, a former Chairman of the Club, Hugh Byrne, and Peter Foster, a property developer himself. Several meetings took place between Mr Doyle and this sub-committee, to discuss the proposal. Mr Foster confirmed to me that the Club was in some financial difficulty, in the sense that it lacked the funds to invest in repairing or improving its facilities, which were gradually degrading. This is borne out by some Club minutes from as far back as 2010.

16

Other steps were taken to further the scheme devised by Mr Doyle. In March 2015, he reached an agreement in principle with a Mr Gary Speirs for the purchase of the proposed new site. DLP advised Mr Doyle that it was necessary to propose that the Zouches Farm land be included in the emerging Caddington and Slip End Neighbourhood Plan as a potential recreational site. In April 2015, DLP (acting at this time on behalf of a Mr Briggs) wrote to Caddington Parish Council to make that proposal.

17

In May 2015, Templeview put to the Club a formal proposal, to give effect to Mr Doyle's intended scheme. The structure of the scheme was, and always...

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