High Court awards €20k each to councillors over defamatory local authority press release

High Court awards €20k each to councillors over defamatory local authority press release
Former Councillor, Barry Nevin from Bray, Co. Wicklow and Cllr Thomas Cullen from Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, leaving the Four Courts today. Pic: Courts Collins

By Ann O'Loughlin

A councillor and a former councillor have been awarded €20,000 each after the High Court found they had been defamed in a press release issued by their local authority.

Cllr Thomas Cullen and former councillor Barry Nevin had sued Wicklow Co Council and its now retired manager, Eddie Sheehy, over the April 2013 release which stated the local authority had lost €200,000 as a result of a delay caused by the need to set up a review into the €3m compulsory acquisition of a piece of land in Greystones for housing.

The release also said this review had to be carried out because of the "unfounded and misconceived allegations" of Cllrs Cullen and Nevin and of a third councillor, James O'Shaughnessy. Mr O'Shaughnessy did not sue.

Mr Cullen and Mr Nevin claimed this release defamed them because it meant they bore sole responsibility for the fact the review had to be carried out, that they had cost the council €200,000 and that they were incompetent in the discharge of their duties as councillors and unfit to represent their constituents.

The brought their case to the Circuit Court which dismissed it in 2014. They appealed to the High Court.

Today, Ms Justice Marie Baker allowed their appeals and found they had been defamed.

She accepted the evidence given by the two men that the personal effect of the release on them was "public odium and they were directly referred to as 'money wasters' by members of the public".

The local elections took place not long after a newspaper report on the matter appeared and Mr Nevin lost his seat, she said.

While she did not take any view as to whether this was attributable to the newspaper article, in her mind the meaning of the press release was that both were responsible for wasting funds at a time when money was scarce.

As the claims were commenced in the Circuit Court, they did not seek a large sum in damages, she said. She considered their purpose was to be vindicated and the level of damages a second consideration. With this in mind, she awarded them €20,000 each.

The court had heard at the centre of the case was the compulsory acquisition by the council for social housing of the 1.4 hectare site, known as the "Three Trouts", in Greystones.

Concerns were raised by elected councillors, including Mr Nevin and Mr Cullen, in relation to the €3m price. Claims were also made that lands were in a flood plain for the Three Trouts stream.

As a result, the council asked senior counsel, now Attorney General Seamus Woulfe, to carry out what turned out to be two reviews into the matter.

In his report, Mr Woulfe concluded that "almost all of the concerns are not well founded and are misconceived".

He said there was no deviation by the council from the relevant legal/administrative requirements and practices in relation to the acquisition of the land. The original site selection procedure was "somewhat bare and inadequate even if it did not lead to a poor outcome in this particular case", Mr Woulfe said.

Arising out of Mr Woulfe's review, the council issued the press release which was prepared and sanctioned by Mr Sheehy.

The defendants had denied it was defamatory, or that the reputations of the two plaintiffs had been damaged. They also pleaded truth, qualified privilege and honest opinion.

Ms Justice Baker said among the defendants' arguments were that the cost to the council was some €200,000 but she found it was closer to €100,000. Truth she said, was not established.

It was not true to say the Woulfe review had found the councillors acted mischievously or in bad faith in raising their concerns, she said.

She considered any discerning and reasonably intelligent reader would have understood from the release the council had lost a significant amount of money and that the persons responsible were not worthy of respect or public office.

She considered the meanings pleaded by the defence, that the two had raised unnecessary or irresponsible concerns without cause, were not true.

She noted Mr Sheehy had accepted the publication of the release was unprecedented. She found the defence of qualified privilege could not be relied upon.

She also did not consider the release contained matters of opinion or that they were honestly held within the meaning of the 2009 Defamation Act.

Costs will be decided in October.

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