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Sheridan fails in defamation damages interest claim

13 March 2018

Former MSP Tommy Sheridan has failed in an attempt to have interest added to his 2006 jury award of damages for defamation in his longrunning litigation against the former News of the World newspaper.

Lord Turnbull in the Court of Session held that although under the legislation in force at the time the action was raised, defamation awards were recognised as damages for personal injuries and therefore attracted interest unless the court was "satisfied that there are reasons special to the case why no interest should be given", Mr Sheridan's conduct in making allegations in court for which he was subsequently convicted of perjury justified the court in declining to make a further award.

In 2006 Mr Sheridan had been awarded the sum of £200,000, the highest ever in Scotland for defamation, in relation to allegations about his private life including an extra-marital affair. The defenders sought a new trial, but proceedings were sisted while Mr Sheridan was investigated and then prosecuted for perjury in relation to evidence given at the civil trial. He was convicted of telling falsehoods on oath relating to his visits to a "swingers' club" in Manchester and served a three year sentence. However when the defenders' motion for a new trial was ultimately heard, it was refused on the basis that the lurid allegations they had published had not been proved and that the jury could have disbelieved Mr Sheridan's false evidence but still found in his favour. Mr Sheridan was paid the principal sum in May 2017, but then enrolled to apply the jury's verdict in order to pursue claims for interest and expenses.

Interest from date of the original publication to the date of the award, at the judicial rate, amounted to £27,473, and from the date of the award to payment of the principal sum to £173,159. For Mr Sheridan it was argued that the defenders' conduct had been significantly worse in that they had attempted to pervert the course of justice during the civil trial by concealing a key witness abroad when it was thought she might be recalled by Mr Sheridan, a matter which only came to light through police enquiries into other criminal conduct, phone hacking including as preparation for the civil trial, by the defenders.

Lord Turnbull accepted that there had been "entirely unacceptable" conduct on the part of the defenders on many occasions, and their actions concerning the witness were "utterly reprehensible", but Mr Sheridan had also committed "blatant and repeated perjury" which included a "disgraceful episode" of attempting to discredit witnesses who were clearly telling the truth and giving evidence at considerable personal cost. "In the manner in which the parties respectively conducted themselves in the course of this litigation, which is all that I am concerned with, there is force in Mr Dunlop’s observation [for the defenders] that they were 'each as bad as the other'", the judge stated.

Discussing the law in relation to interest, he noted that defamation actions raised between 1993 and mid-2011 were included in the interest provisions applying to damages for personal injuries – s 1(1A) of the Interest on Damages (Scotland) Act 1958 – though the Damages (Scotland) Act 2011 now contained a narrower definition. That meant that interest should be added unless the court found special reasons otherwise.

Lord Turnbull concluded: "There can be few other civil cases heard in modern times which have attracted such notoriety. I know of no other case in which a litigant, who sought to vindicate his reputation through an action for defamation, emerged as a criminal convicted of perjury and at the same time secured an award of a very substantial sum of money. To include within the award of damages in the verdict a further £200,632, or a further £173,159, would be a step which many would find difficult to comprehend, not least those who suffered injury to their standing and feelings as a consequence of the pursuer’s conduct towards them in court and went uncompensated.

"The circumstances associated with this case which I have outlined are, to my mind, self-evidently exceptional. They seem to me to be the sort of circumstances which can be thought of appropriately as being reasons special to the case such as to entitle me to exercise my discretion in favour of declining to make an award of interest to run from any date prior to decree. That is the step which I shall take."

On expenses, "Whilst I felt that there was a strong case for making no award of expenses due to or by either party, in the end, I decided that such a decision would be a step too far. I am therefore prepared to make an award of expenses in the pursuer’s favour." However he refused to make the award at a higher level than the normal party and party.

Click here to view the opinion.

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