Rotherham’s three Labour candidates have won a round in their defamation action against a Ukip candidate over remarks she made about them in relation to the town’s child abuse scandal.
Sir Kevin Barron in Rother Valley, John Healey, seeking to represent Wentworth and Dearne, and Sarah Champion, who succeeded Denis MacShane in the Rotherham constituency, sued 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 arises from a speech Ms Collins gave at Ukip’s conference in September - 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 to move onto the next stage.
He 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 then-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 politicians 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.
In the action brought against Mr Vines, judgment was entered against him after Mr Justice Warby concluded he had failed to put forward any defence which could possibly succeed.
The damages to be paid by Mr Vines, who represented himself, will be assessed at a later date if not agreed.
He was also ordered to pay £15,000 legal costs.
Ukip has yet to comment on the decision.
In a joint statement, the Labour politicians said: “These smears on our integrity were totally unfounded. We are pleased that the judge has recognised this in his ruling today.
“One of the strengths that we have taken from the aftermath of the terrible revelations about child abuse in our town has been the determined way in which local people, charities and agencies in Rotherham have come together to demand change - and worked together to start making it happen.
“UKIP have shown no interest in being part of this. We have seen again in this case that they tried to use such terrible abuse for party-political advantage, smearing their opponents rather than working to help the victims and rebuilding trust among the local community.
“We will continue to fight to make sure that the awful abuse revealed in the Jay report is never repeated. We urge other political parties to join us in doing so. Our town needs everyone to pull together to put right the failings of the past, invest in our children’s safeguarding and get the victims and survivors the justice they deserve.”