Former SNP councillor awarded £40,000 damages for defamation over false ‘racism’ claim

A former SNP councillor has been awarded £40,000 in damages after raising a defamation action against a party activist who falsely accused her of racism.

Julie McAnulty sued Sheena McCulloch over the content of an email sent to the party compliance manager, in which it was alleged that the pursuer had said “Pakis” in the SNP were “causing problems locally” and that “we needed to get rid of them out of the party”.

A judge in the Court of Session ruled that Ms McAnulty did not make the statement, and that the accusation was motivated by “malice and ill-will” as a result of political infighting within the local SNP branch.

‘False and calumnious’

Lord Uist heard that the pursuer claimed she was defamed in an email dated 5 February 2016 sent by the defender to Ian McCann, the SNP’s compliance a manger, which appeared in an article on the front page of the Daily Record three days later.

The pursuer, who was then a North Lanarkshire councillor, insisted that she did not make the comments attributed to her in that email and that the statements made by the defender of and concerning her were “false and calumnious”. 

However, the defender, then an assistant to SNP MSP Richard Lyle, maintained that the content of the email was “substantially true” and that the comments were made during a car journey while the pair were out campaigning ahead of a council by-election in 2015.

The defender said the email it was prompted by her reading of a story relating to the pursuer in the Daily Record on 3 February 2016 headed “SNP Holyrood candidate accused of racism refuses to sit beside Muslim party colleague at council meetings”. 

But the judge accepted that the refusal to sit beside her fellow councillor Dr Imtiaz Majid was “political and not racist in nature”. 

Following publication of the email in the Daily Record Ms McAnulty was suspended from the party and dropped as a potential candidate for Holyrood elections.

She was later deselected as a council candidate, and stood unsuccessfully as an independent in the 2017 local elections after resigning from the SNP.

‘Implausible and inherently unlikely’

The judge ruled that the pursuer did not make the “outrageous” remark.

In a written opinion, Lord Uist said: “I regard it as implausible and inherently unlikely that the pursuer would have made the statement attributed to her, and especially to the defender.

“I am therefore satisfied that the statement made by the defender attributing the alleged statement to the pursuer was false.

“On the view I have taken no issue of veritas, fair comment or qualified privilege arises.”

The judge added that the complaint by the defender was “activated by malice and ill-will as part of a campaign directed against the pursuer by the opposing faction within the local SNP”, which was “designed to prevent the pursuer from being nominated as a candidate for the Scottish Parliament elections, and possibly to oust her from the party”.

He continued: “The false allegation of racism against the pursuer was extremely serious in nature and caused her great distress.

“The libel in question, which made an unfounded allegation of racism, was an outrageous one which has had a serious effect on the pursuer’s personal reputation and effectively ended her political career.”

Ms McAnulty had been seeking £100,000 in damages, while Ms McCulloch’s lawyers suggested a figure of just £5,000.

Lord Uist described the defender’s suggestion as “wholly unrealistic and inadequate”, but the ruled that £40,000 would be an “appropriate” award, after concluding that Ms McCulloch could not be held responsible for her email - which was marked “confidential” - being more widely published.

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