Birmingham Six pair may sue barrister for pamphlet defamation

 

THE SUPREME Court has cleared the way for two members of the wrongly jailed Birmingham Six to go ahead with suing an English barrister for defamation over a pamphlet written by him.

Hugh Callaghan and Gerry Hunter claim words, inferences or innuendo in the pamphlet meant they were “mass murderers”.

The Attorney General had supported arguments by the two that they were entitled to bring their action. It was for a jury to decide if they had been defamed and, as the facts of the case had yet to be proven or disproved, the court could not halt the action at this point, Denis McDonald SC, for the Attorney General, submitted yesterday.

Mr Callaghan and Mr Hunter were among six men released after 16 years in March 1991 when their convictions for the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, in which 20 people died, were quashed by the English Court of Appeal.

They claim a 1997 pamphlet written by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, titled The Birmingham Six and Other Cases, subtitled Victims of Circumstances, meant the quashing of their convictions did not imply they were entitled to be presumed innocent.

It is claimed Mr Blom-Cooper selected certain facts, discussed these and used innuendo and inference to defame the six.

The men claim the pamphlet clearly infers that a proper view of the value of the circumstantial evidence in the case would have led to a reaffirmation of their convictions.

They initiated defamation proceedings in 1998 against Mr Blom-Cooper and the pamphlet’s publishers, Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd, London.

In the Irish High Court in 2003, Mr Justice Aindrias Ó Caoimh rejected arguments by Mr Blom-Cooper and his publishers that the contents of the booklet could not give rise to a defamation action but stressed he was not expressing any view on the merits of the defamation claims brought.

A five-judge Supreme Court, presided over by the Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, yesterday rejected the appeal against that High Court decision by Mr Blom-Cooper and Duckworth’s.

The appellants argued that no defamation action could arise in circumstances where Mr Blom-Cooper was exercising his right to freedom of expression and there was “no unjust attack” on the good names of the plaintiffs. Michael Ashe SC, for the appellants, said there was no attack on private persons here.

Séamus Ó Tuathail SC, for Mr Callaghan and Mr Hunter, argued it was fundamentally incorrect to contend that freedom of speech took absolute precedence over the right to one’s good name and that no balancing was allowed.

Mr McDonald said the facts of the case had to be proven before there could be any balancing exercise carried out as between the right to freedom of expression and the right to one’s good name.

To get around this, it would mean all previous decisions of the Irish Supreme Court and the European courts were wrong because no constitutional issue was ever determined without specific reference to the facts of a case, he said.

The Chief Justice directed the appellants to pay the costs of the Supreme Court appeal of the plaintiffs and the Attorney General.