The High Court has dismissed a claim brought over a Metropolitan Police press release, upholding defences of truth and no serious harm at trial, writes Gervase de Wilde.
In a judgment handed down on 6 May 2021, Julian Knowles J dismissed a claim for defamation brought by William Spicer against the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.
The background to the claim in Spicer v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  EWHC 1099 (QB) was the tragic death of a young woman, Hina Shamim, who was struck by a car driven by Farid Reza on 31 March 2015. She died almost immediately. The claimant, William Spicer, was in the car immediately behind Mr Reza’s. Both vehicles were travelling at over 60 mph in a 30 mph zone at the time of the collision. Mr Spicer drove past the scene and, although he subsequently returned, did not make himself known to the Police.
Mr Reza and Mr Spicer were charged with causing death by dangerous driving and causing serious injury by dangerous driving, and both pleaded not guilty. In January 2017 they stood trial at the Old Bailey. Mr Reza was convicted by the jury of the offences with which he was charged, while Mr Spicer was acquitted of those two offences and dangerous driving, but was convicted of careless driving.
The Metropolitan Police press office published a press release about the outcome of the trial on 26 January 2017, the day of the verdicts and sentencing, and Mr Spicer sued the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, as the person responsible for publication, over its contents.
The meaning of the press release was determined by Warby J as a preliminary issue,  EWHC 1439 (QB), the meaning in summary being that Mr Spicer had taken part in a car race with Mr Reza before the accident, and that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that he was guilty of the offences of causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving. The Commissioner defended the meaning as being true, and protected by privilege, and argued that Mr Spicer had not suffered serious harm to his reputation as a result of the publication of the press release.
There were then cross-applications seeking to have the Commissioner’s defence of truth dismissed as an abuse of process, and for an order for Mr Spicer to remedy deficiencies in his Reply, which were determined by Saini J,  EWHC 1778 (QB).
At trial, the Court upheld the defendant’s defence of truth, the Judge finding that he was sure that Mr Spicer and Mr Reza were racing before the fatal collision, and that the Commissioner had proved the primary facts which gave rise to reasonable grounds of suspicion that Mr Spicer had committed the relevant offences.
While the Court determined that the parts of the press release over which privilege was claimed did not lose their privilege by reason of extraneous material within it, it did not uphold the defence in respect of the press release as a whole.
The Court did not accept Mr Spicer’s case that his reputation had been seriously harmed by the publication of the press release for the purposes of s1 of the Defamation Act 2013, taking into account other contemporaneous coverage of the criminal trial and its outcome, and that Mr Spicer’s evidence on harm was at a high level of generality.