True Malice Aforethought - Libel in the Employment Context

November 01, 2002
In this article, Charles Wynn-Evans, head of employment in Dechert’s London office, summarises the key legal points of the issue of libel in an employment context, focussing on the case of Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed. In 1994 the two former nursery nurses Christopher Lillie an Dawn Reed were acquitted of criminal charges of indecent assault and, in Lillie’ s case, rape. The Newcastle City Council subsequently appointed an independent review team. As a result of the report prepared by the review team, Lillie and Reed brought a libel claim against Newcastle City Council. The trial judge found that the authors of the report had forfeited protection against a libel action arising from its damaging conclusions by acting maliciously. The trial judge was satisfied that after three years of ‘supposedly vigorous and impartial analysis’ the review team consciously set out to misrepresent the state of the evidence and give the impression that statements by parents and/or children had been corroborated by police. They merited a damages award against the authors of the report of £200,000 each because of the scale, gravity and persistence of the allegations. The council remained protected by the defence of qualified privilege because, while it implemented the review without proper safeguards, it did not act with malice in relation to the preparation or publication of the report. In particular context of email abuse, the promulgation of appropriate employment policies will be crucial to reducing the risk of vicarious liability for libellous statements. The defence of qualified privilege may provide comfort, both to employers and employees, that they can be free with their opinions in the working environment. The damages awards made in the malice cases should, however, be helpful in their reminder that qualified privilege is just that - a qualified and not an absolute right to express views and opinions. To purchase the publication, contact Tolley on +44 (0)20 8662 2000 or email