A legal showdown between our current and former MPs

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A LEGAL battle between two political rivals over allegedly libellous election leaflets is set to go before three of the country’s top judges.

Ex-Eastbourne MP Nigel Waterson won the right to libel damages from his successor, Stephen Lloyd MP, in December last year, in a ruling which found election literature branding Mr Waterson an “expenses scandal MP” was defamatory.

But Mr Lloyd came back to court last week (Thursday), insisting he should have been allowed to change his defence to the libel claims during the previous hearing. A senior judge has now ruled his case raises important points of principle which should be aired at a full hearing before the Civil Court of Appeal – but warned him he is unlikely to win.

Mr Justice Norris told the court the claims relate to two “mock newspapers” handed out by Mr Lloyd’s election team ahead of the 2010 polls, in which he defeated Mr Waterson.

The court heard both implied Tory incumbent, Mr Waterson, had improperly claimed expenses during the scandal in 2009 when in fact his expenses claims were said to have “no issues” in the review by Sir Thomas Legg.

Mr Justice Tugendhat last year rejected claims the newspapers were obviously “spoofs” or that their wording was mere opinion, or comment, on a matter of public interest.

The judge said, “These meanings are plainly defamatory, that is not in dispute, and in my judgment they are plainly statements of fact.

“There is no attempt by the writers to distinguish what can be factual statements from matters of comment or opinion.”

But Mr Lloyd now claims he should have been allowed to plead the statements were “justified”, but was prevented from doing so during the High Court hearing.

This week he won the chance to put his arguments at a full Appeal Court hearing, but was advised it will probably not change the outcome of the case.

Mr Justice Norris ruled, “I consider there is, in my judgment, no real prospect of success, but I propose to grant permission to appeal.

“This is a case involving an application to re-plead a case following a conscious decision not to plead the point before judgment had been handed down.

“I consider it appropriate that a full court should consider the principles in such circumstances.”

No date has been set for the full hearing of Mr Lloyd’s appeal.