Tommy Sheridan’s claim for interest following £200,000 defamation action refused

Former MSP Tommy Sheridan has had a £200,000 claim for interest following his successful £200,000 defamation action against the publishers of the News of the World dismissed.

A judge in the Court of Session ruled that the ex-Scottish Socialist Party leader’s subsequent prosecution for perjury and attempts to challenge his conviction for lying during the civil jury trial made this an “exceptional case” and he therefore refused to include any interest on the record damages previously awarded.

Defamation action

Lord Turnbull heard that in November 2004 the defenders News Group International published an article in the News of the World, in which various allegations were made about the pursuer’s private life, including an allegation that he had conducted an affair with a woman by the name of Fiona McGuire.

The pursuer raised an action of defamation and the civil trial concluded in August 2006, when the jury pronounced a verdict in his favour assessing damages at £200,000 – the largest sum for defamation ever pronounced in Scotland.

However, in late 2010 the pursuer went to trial on charges alleging that he committed perjury in the course of giving evidence at the civil trial, following which he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment after being convicted of lying when he denied, among other things, visiting a “swingers’ club” in Manchester and having a sexual relationship with a woman “KT”.

The pursuer was refused leave to appeal his conviction and failed in a subsequent application to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) in which he asked them to refer his case back to the Court of Appeal, though he was now seeking judicial review of the SCCRC’s decision.

In the period between the verdict in the civil jury trial and the pursuer’s High Court trial, the News of the World and certain of its employees had also come to the attention of the police, with a number of executives and reporters convicted of phone-hacking.

Motion for new trial

The defenders had enrolled a motion for a new trial immediately after the conclusion of the civil proceedings in 2006, but the case was sisted and as a result of events which followed the hearing did not take place until May 2016.

The defenders were seeking to set aside the verdict of the jury on the basis of new evidence that the pursuer had lied and that it would be “contrary to the justice of the cause” to allow the verdict to stand when the pursuer had been convicted of perjured evidence given in the civil jury trial.

In August 2017 the Inner House refused the motion after ruling that while the pursuer had presented his case at the civil jury trial on the basis that his honesty and his marital fidelity were key issues, the jury may well have disbelieved large parts of his evidence and yet been satisfied that the issue should be answered in the way it was.

In August 2017 – a little over 11 years later after the civil trial, the pursuer enrolled a motion in terms of Rule of Court 37.10 seeking to have the verdict applied, with an additional motion for interest to be included and for the expenses of the action.

‘Each side as bad as the other’

For the pursuer, solicitor advocate Gordon Dangerfield argued that the pursuer was entitled to an award of interest on the principal sum at a rate of 8% per year for the period from publication (14 November 2004) until 4 August 2006, the date of the jury’s verdict, which amounted to £27,473. In addition, he argued that the pursuer was entitled to interest at the same rate for the period from the date of the verdict to 30 May 2017, which amounted to £173,159 – giving a total of £200,632.

It was submitted that the normal rule that expenses follow success should apply. The defenders had used the civil trial procedure from the outset for the “improper purpose of attempting to pervert the course of justice”. They obtained evidence by criminal means, including phone tapping, and sought to use that evidence to further their case. Bob Bird, the editor of the Scottish edition of the News of the World, had been involved in an operation to have Ms McGuire “spirited away” to Dubai during the civil trial to avoid her being recalled to give evidence and the defenders had concealed their criminal behaviour from the court, Mr Dangerfield said.

Counsel for the defenders, Roddy Dunlop QC, submitted that the question of whether, and to what extent, any award for interest ought to be made was determined by the common law governing interest on damages, as amended by the Interest on Damages (Scotland) Act 1958, which meant that interest in the present case would only run from the point at which the jury’s verdict was applied. Although the court had a discretion to make an award to date from an earlier point, that would not normally arise unless there had been undue delay on the part of the defenders, and in this case the pursuer’s motion had been delayed as a result of his own trial and conviction for perjury.

In relation to expenses, Mr Dunlop acknowledged that “valid criticisms” had been made of the behaviour of those concerned with the newspaper but submitted that the pursuer’s own conduct required to be weighed in the balance. He had embarked upon an action of defamation which had as its primary purpose vindication of his reputation. Rather than emerge with his reputation cleared, he emerged as a convicted perjurer, albeit £200,000 the better off. The reality was that “each side was as bad as the other”. It was submitted that a “fair and proportionate exercise” of the judge’s discretion would be a finding of no expenses due to or by either party.

‘Remarkable litigation’

Refusing the pursuer’s motion, the judge observed that these proceedings marked the “concluding chapter in a remarkable litigation”.

In a written opinion, Lord Turnbull said: “There can be few other civil cases heard in modern times which have attracted such notoriety. I know of no other case in which a litigant, who sought to vindicate his reputation through an action for defamation, emerged as a criminal convicted of perjury and at the same time secured an award of a very substantial sum of money. To include within the award of damages in the verdict a further £200,632, or a further £173,159, would be a step which many would find difficult to comprehend, not least those who suffered injury to their standing and feelings as a consequence of the pursuer’s conduct towards them in court and went uncompensated.

“The circumstances associated with this case which I have outlined are, to my mind, self-evidently exceptional. They seem to me to be the sort of circumstances which can be thought of appropriately as being reasons special to the case such as to entitle me to exercise my discretion in favour of declining to make an award of interest to run from any date prior to decree. That is the step which I shall take. Since the principal sum was paid prior to the enrolment of the motion to apply the verdict, I shall make no order for interest.”

However, he did find the defenders liable to the pursuer in the expenses of and in connection with the proceedings in the Outer House, except in so far as already dealt with, all on a party and party basis.

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