Court warns on libel risk for missing children stories

A HIGH Court warning has been given on libel risk when court reporting restrictions are lifted to gain media publicity that may help trace missing children.

Sir Michael Davies last Monday refused to allow a woman seeking to sue the Daily Mirror and three local papers to continue with her libel claim because she launched it several years too late.

But in doing so, he also warned that the lifting of reporting restrictions in such cases was not a “licence” for the media to use defamatory material about the person, if that material was not based on courtroom evidence.

As well as being a media warning, it also alerts the legal profession who have made some extravagant claims outside the courtroom's confines in the past.

Last week's action resulted from statements made outside court after a judge in Wales authorised publicity in a bid to track down the woman who had gone on the run to Australia with her two children. The claims at the centre of the complaint were made by her husband.

As well as authorising publicity and making a statement in court, protected by absolute privilege, he also gave consent for the husband to talk to the press.

But outside court the husband made false allegations that his wife was involved with drug runners.

Sir Michael refused to allow the woman's libel claim to proceed because of the length of time passed since the 1988 publications.

However, he said although press assistance had been called on to help the judge had not given a “licence” to print potentially defamatory matter.

In the past in such cases judges have invariably said nothing in court after hearing the evidence other than to give the parties and lawyers leave to talk to the press outside the court.