In-house solicitor brings libel claim over accusatory press release

High Court: Preliminary meaning hearing

A senior solicitor at the Environment Agency is suing a director of a garden centre business for libel and harassment after he successfully prosecuted the man for waste offences.

In a preliminary ruling on meaning, Mr Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, ruled that a press release published on its website by Devon company Joyner Plants was defamatory of Dylan Sadler.

The prosecution concerned land near Totnes in Devon owned by Anthony Joyner and his two co-directors, which was leased in 2015 to a David Weeks who, together with his business partner Steven Loveridge, to operate a waste recycling business there.

Mr Joyner terminated the lease in January 2016 after learning that Mr Loveridge had been convicted of an unrelated drugs offence, but the waste that had been brought on to the site remained there. In May 2016, a major fire broke out at the site and burned for five days.

In 2018, Mr Sadler prosecuted Mr Joyner, Mr Weeks and Mr Loveridge. The latter two pleaded guilty and were sentenced.

Mr Joyner was charged with knowingly causing or permitting the carrying on of a waste operation at the site without an environmental permit, and keeping controlled waste at the site in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health.

He initially pleaded not guilty but then pleaded guilty to the second count, for which he was fined £3,600, and ordered to pay £4,250 to Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, plus £5,000 in prosecution costs. Count 1 was left to lie on the court file.

Soon after, the press release went up on the Joyners Plants website, Plants Galore, which described the first count as a “false charge” and went on to make a series of allegations about the prosecution.

Mr Spearman largely accepted the claimant’s submissions on meaning and ruled that they were defamatory.

He found that the release said Mr Sadler had “knowingly induced Steve Loveridge, a convicted criminal, to invent false evidence” against Mr Joyner by offering a lesser sentence.

Further, the release said Mr Sadler pursued the prosecution on the first count when there was no chance of it succeeding, wasting £6,000 of government money as a result.

Third, this gave “strong grounds to suspect that the claimant is a solicitor who is willing to go to any length to gain a conviction, whether fair or not, and who brought this prosecution vindictively”, and finally that it was “questionable” whether Mr Sadler was suitable to hold his position as a solicitor at the Environment Agency.

Though normally after such hearings the court orders costs in the case, here Mr Spearman ordered that the defendants (Mr Joyner and the company) pay Mr Sadler’s costs, accepting the claimant’s argument that “the defendants had not adopted a realistic approach to the issues” and an immediate order for costs would have “a salutary effect” on them.

Mr Sadler sought £40,200. The judge ordered a detailed assessment, with a payment of £20,000 on account.

Preliminary hearings on meaning have become common in libel cases and usually take place before service of the defence.

The particulars of claim described Mr Sadler as having had “a distinguished career as a public service lawyer”; he previously worked for the Army Legal Service, where he rose to the rank of major, and Plymouth City Council.

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