On Monday 17 November 2014 the most high profile libel trial of the year will begin in Court 13 at 10.30am before Mr Justice Mitting. This the joint trial of preliminary issues in two claims and is now listed for two weeks (reduced from the original three).
As is well known, the claim arises out of an incident at the gate of Downing Street on 12 September 2012 when words were exchanged between the then Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell MP and a police officer, PC Toby Rowland. On 21 September 2012, the Sun reported that Mr Mitchell has shouted “you’re fucking plebs“. This incident became known as “Plebgate“.
On 7 March 2013, Mr Mitchell issued defamation proceedings against the Sun. It filed a defence on 17 May 2013 pleading justification and a Reynolds defence. This case gained early notoriety in legal circles because the Master disallowed the whole of the claimant’s costs due to the late filing of a costs budget. This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal (Mitchell v News Group  EWCA Civ 1537).
On 12 December 2013 PC Rowland issued a libel claim against against Mr Mitchell based on statements made by Mr Mitchell on six occasions between December 2012 and December 2013 in or via the media. PC Rowland complained that, in these statements, Mr Mitchell accused him of fabricating allegations and evidence against Mr Mitchell, spreading these to the media as part of a plot to frame Mr Mitchell, and deliberately destroying Mr Mitchell’s career. Mr Mitchell’s Defence is that these allegations are true.
The case has been before the Courts on a number of occasions. There have been several applications for third party disclosure from the Metropolitan Police in these actions. Judgments were given on these on 27 March ( EWHC 879 (QB)) and 11 June ( EWHC 1885 (QB)).
On 24 July 2014 Warby J ordered that each of those actions should be tried by a Judge sitting without a jury, and that there should be a joint trial of certain preliminary issues in the actions, starting on 17 November 2014. Warby J gave a judgment explaining why he had ordered the trial of preliminary issues ( EWHC 2615 (QB)).
In September 2014, the Sun filed an Amended Defence in which it relied on seventeen incidents which, it alleged, showed “high handed and rude” behaviour of Mr Mitchell towards police officers. There was a report of the contents of the Defence in the Press Gazette.
Warby J conducted a pre-trial review on 23 and 24 October 2014 and made orders permitting the parties to rely on expert evidence in phonetics and “field of vision/trajectory analysis” or optometry. He also refused to exclude the “similar fact evidence” relied on by NGN and PC Rowland concerning other alleged incidents between Mr Mitchell and police officers ( EWHC 3590 (QB)).
Mr Mitchell later filed an Amended Reply in to the Sun’s Amended Defence rebutting its Reynolds defence. There was a report of the contents of the Amended Reply in the Press Gazette.
Mitting J will try three preliminary issues. The main ones are, in each action,
- what natural and ordinary meaning(s) the words complained of bore, and
- whether in such meaning(s) they were substantially true.
Mr Mitchell is represented by solicitors Atkins Thomson, who have instructed James Price QC and Victoria Jolliffe. News Group Newspapers are represented by Simons Muirhead and Burton, who have instructed Gavin Millar QC and Adam Wolanski. PC Rowland is represented by Slater and Gordon LLP, who have instructed Desmond Browne QC and Catrin Evans.
We will have regular reports on the trial.
There was a preview of the trial in Saturday’s Guardian by Owen Bowcott: “Multimillion pound Plebgate libel case comes to court“.
The Channel 4 news item including the CCTV footage of Mr Mitchell leaving Downing Street on the night in question can be viewed here: