Rotherham’s three Labour MPs have won a round in their defamation action against Ukip politician Jane Collins over remarks she made about them in relation to the town’s child abuse scandal.
Sir Kevin Barron, MP for Rother Valley, John Healey, who represents Wentworth and Dearne, and Sarah Champion, who succeeded Denis MacShane in the Rotherham constituency, are suing Jane Collins, the MEP for Rotherham who is Ukip’s candidate for Rotherham at next week’s General Election.
Their claim for slander and libel was related from a speech Ms Collins gave at Ukip’s conference in September suggesting the three MPs ‘knew all about’ child sexual exploitation in the town - a month after a report found that about 1,400 children in the area had been abused between 1997 and 2013.
Sir Kevin and Mr Healey also sued Caven Vines, Ukip’s leader on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, for libel and slander over remarks he made about them in a live Sky News interview in January in relation to their alleged knowledge of the abuse.
Today, at London’s High Court, Mr Justice Warby made preliminary findings which will allow the litigation action to move onto the next stage.
In the action against Mr Vines, Mr Justice Warby said he had failed to put forward any defence which could possibly succeed. Mr Vines, who represented himself, has been ordered to pay £15,000 legal costs, with the damages he will pay to be assessed at a later date if not agreed.
The judge said that Ms Collins’s words meant, as an allegation of fact, that each of the MPs knew many of the details of the exploitation yet deliberately chose not to intervene but allowed it to continue.
They also meant, as expressions of opinion, that they acted in this way for motives of political correctness, political cowardice or political selfishness and that they were guilty of misconduct so grave that it was or should be criminal, as it aided the perpetrators and made the MPs just as culpable.
The judge said: “This trial has required me to consider only how the defendant’s words would have struck the ordinary reasonable member of her audience.
“It has been no part of my task to determine whether the meanings that I have found the words to bear are, or may be, defensible.”
Lawyers for Ms Collins had argued that it was a political speech which did not contain any allegation of fact but expressed an opinion to the effect that the MPs were likely to have known that sexual exploitation was a serious problem in the area.
The judge said that well-established principles of law relating to meaning and the distinction between fact and comment made some allowance for the need to give free rein to political speech.
But the nature of the principles meant that there were limits on the protection that could be given.
He said that the law must accommodate trenchant expression on political issues, but it would be wrong to achieve this by distorting the ordinary meaning of words, or treating as opinion what the ordinary person would understand as an allegation of fact.
A Ukip spokesman said: “The defamation case against Mrs Collins is still being defended in the courts and the defence is not yet due.”