State-funded primary school spent £244,000 on libel case against father of former teacher
A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in legal costs since 2008.
The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team. Durand records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.
The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.
The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.
The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.
But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.
In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.
As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.
(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)
(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163 on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)