Law Commission seeks to protect councils from libel challenges

The Law Commission is proposing that councils
receive immunity from being sued for libel by individuals named in
internal inquiry reports.

consultation document published this week by the body that reviews
the effectiveness of the law for the government, states that fear
of being taken to court is one of the factors causing councils to
suppress important findings.

As a
result, mistakes are more likely to be repeated, other bodies
cannot learn from the lessons, and complaints are not made

deal with the problem, the consultation paper proposes that the law
is changed to extend “qualified privilege” to local authority
inquiries that involve serious complaints against the authority or
a failure in its services.

would protect the council from libel actions as long as the report
had been conducted fairly, was about a matter of genuine public
interest, and anyone criticised was given the opportunity to

report also asks whether there is a need for new legal powers for
local authorities to set up formal inquiries, with the power to
summon witnesses, require the production of documents, and take
evidence on oath.

Director of central services at
the Local Government Association John Rees said: “The LGA welcomes
the consideration of these issues by the Law Commission and
believes that the provisional conclusions could improve the ability
of local authorities to investigate and take action on issues of
real public concern without being inhibited from acting

Law Commission was asked to look at the problem following the
Waterhouse Report into the abuse of children in care in North
Wales. At the time, Sir Ronald Waterhouse expressed concern that
fear of legal action was preventing councils from acting in the
wider public interest.

In a
recent judgment, Paul and Audrey Edwards v the United
, the European Court of Human Rights held that there
had been a violation of article 2 of the European Convention on
Human Rights in the failure to conduct an effective investigation
into the death of Christopher Edwards, who was killed by a fellow
detainee while in prison on remand in November 1994.

inquiry commissioned was held in private and had no power to compel
witnesses, resulting in two prison officers declining to

Does the Law Get in the Way of the Publication of Inquiry
from     Consultation ends 31


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