CONTACT/DEFAMATION: Westcott v Westcott [2008] EWCA Civ 818

15 JUL 2008

(Court of Appeal; Ward, Sedley and Stanley Burnton LJJ; 15 July 2008)

The mother and the father had separated. While the mother was delivering the 6-month-old child for contact with the father and the paternal grandparents, a blazing row developed. The mother went home and telephoned the police to complain that the paternal grandfather, her father in law, had assaulted her and the child. The police took a statement from her that evening, in which she described the paternal grandfather hitting her; neither she nor the child had any visible injuries. The police did not consider that the complaint warranted further action, but the local authority contacted the mother, advising her to ensure the safety of the child by not visiting the paternal grandfather. The paternal grandfather brought a defamation action, arguing that he had been seriously compromised in his position as a JP and a member of the Family Panel of the Family Proceedings Court, and that the stance of the local authority had caused him particular upset and embarrassment.

Even though the mother's witness statement to the police had not resulted in a police investigation, the statement was entitled to absolute privilege, rather than merely qualified privilege. All those who participated in a criminal investigation were entitled to the benefit of absolute privilege; there was no logic in conferring immunity at the end of the criminal investigation but not at the beginning. Any inhibition on the freedom to complain would seriously erode the rigours of the criminal justice system and would be contrary to the public interest.

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