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Council and Leader defeat £670k slander claim over childrens care homes

A High Court judge has dismissed a £670,000 claim for slander brought against a borough council and its leader by two companies that operate residential children’s care homes in its area.

The claimants in Meadows Care Ltd & Anor v Lambert & Anor [2014] EWHC 1226 (Admin) were providers of children’s care homes in Rochdale and depended for their work on children being referred to them by local authorities.

On 8 May 2012 nine men were convicted at the Crown Court in Liverpool of a range of serious sexual offences, including rape, against more than 40 girls and vulnerable young women. The perpetrators and victims lived in the Rochdale area.

The Rochdale grooming case, as it became known, received national publicity.

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After the convictions Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council established a Community Forum, which held an inaugural meeting on 30 May 2012.

Comments at this meeting by Cllr Colin Lambert, Leader of Rochdale, led to the claim for slander being issued by Meadows Care and Pathfinders Childcare. They said the words used meant and were understood to mean that they operated care homes which were dangerous, unsafe and damaging to both vulnerable children and society.

However, Mr Justice Bean has today rejected their claim. The High Court judge found that the meaning of the words complained of, taken as a whole, was as follows:

"Private care homes, of which there are 41 in Rochdale, do not protect vulnerable children and do not re-integrate them into the community; they do the opposite. This is because:

(1) The legislation governing private care homes is totally inadequate; there should be a parliamentary review of it.

(2) Rochdale has no role in the life of any child sent here by another authority.

(3) If children were sent out of their own community to a secure home they would be safe. No one could get in, they could not get out, and they would have full access to educational, medical and social services.

(4) By contrast, where children go missing from a private care home the local council in that area picks up the social problems and the local health authority picks up the medical problems. Home authorities are washing their hands of the issue because they are not asking whether the welfare needs of the child are met by signing a contract with a provider outside their own area.

(5) Rochdale is in any case the wrong place for another local authority to send a troubled and vulnerable child in the current climate (following the grooming case)."

Mr Justice Bean said it was clear to him that the words were an expression of opinion and did not involve an allegation of culpable behaviour or negligence on the part of either of the claimants or their staff, nor on the part of the seven private providers of children's care homes in Rochdale or their staff.

“The allegation is plainly against the system,” the judge said. “Cllr Lambert was saying that in his opinion the children are not properly protected, and that this lack of protection is a consequence of the legislative and systemic defects which I have enumerated....”

The High Court judge therefore found that the words complained of in the draft re-amended particulars of claim did not bear any meaning which was defamatory of the claimants. He also found that they were an expression of opinion rather than a statement of fact, and that the defamation claim had no prospect of success at a trial.

He therefore refused permission to re-amend and dismissed the claim. The judge has also ordered the businesses to pay £30,000 in costs with the balance of Rochdale’s costs to be paid at a later date.

Cllr Lambert said: “I’m very pleased with the decision today. I have been a long-standing critic of the care system which sees vulnerable children placed in care homes sometimes hundreds of miles away from their home local authority. I spoke out at the community meeting once again to highlight the issues that had come into sharp focus following these convictions which had come to national prominence.

“As I have made clear throughout, I never intended my criticisms to be taken as reflecting on the individual care homes. I regret that this defamation claim was brought, but once it had been the council was determined to fight it. On the basis of the decision of the High Court today, it was right to do so.”

He added: “My reputation has been under scrutiny with this claim and the reputation of Rochdale Borough Council. I encourage people who doubted us at any time to read the full judgment with all associated papers….

“It is important that council leaders who need to speak out about these matters can do so without the fear of legal proceedings. As the judge recognised, as Leader of the council, the public can rightly expect me to express opinions frankly and fearlessly. I will continue to do so.”

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