The judge in the Chris Packham libel trial has deprecated “gratuitously offensive” comments the defendants targeted at the TV presenter’s solicitors.
Mr Justice Saini yesterday awarded Mr Packham £90,000 in damages after finding that online publication Country Squire Magazine, its editor Dominic Wightman and writer Nigel Bean had defamed him.
Saini J observed that “Mr Wightman’s lack of objectivity [in relation to Mr Packham] sadly carried into what were abusive and offensive exchanges with Mr Packham’s solicitors, Leigh Day”.
He went into this when considering damages, with the judge saying Mr Wightman (also called D1 in the ruling) and Mr Bean used the litigation “as a device to introduce offensive material to smear Mr Packham”, the most serious of which was their claim that he had falsified a death threat letter.
An expert commissioned by the defendants had compared the handwriting in the letter with that on a Companies House form relating to a company of which Mr Packham was a director.
The expert found them a match and declared Mr Packham had written the letter with a “level of scientific certainty”.
However, it was actually an accountant who had filled out the form. Leigh Day explained this to the defendants but they refused to withdraw the allegation.
Saini J continued: “Not only did they refuse to withdraw it, but D1 (writing expressly on behalf of all the defendants) asked Leigh Day to serve a handwriting expert report, adding ‘… could you not find a handwriting expert this side of Basra willing to state that Packham did not write his own death threat note’.
“Why Basra? This was a gratuitously offensive reference to the legal representation by Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day of Iraqi civilians in wholly unrelated litigation.”
Ms Gregory, who acted for Mr Packham in the case, previously worked at Public Interest Lawyers, which, like Leigh Day, acted for Iraqi nationals at the al-Sweady inquiry, which cleared British soldiers of the most serious allegations of unlawful killing after a firefight during the Iraq war.
This led to the collapse of Public Interest Lawyers in 2016 and its senior partner, Phil Shiner, being struck off and facing criminal prosecution. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal cleared Leigh Day of any misconduct, a decision upheld on appeal.
The judge continued: “Mr Packham’s case has nothing to do with Iraq or other clients of Ms Gregory. To her credit Ms Gregory acted with exemplary professionalism and moderation in the firm’s responses to this (and a number of other pieces of offensive correspondence emanating from D1 concerning representation of Iraqi civilians).
“I will not set out those further offensive references, which included irrelevant references by D1 to another person who worked at Public Interest Lawyers.
“One of the great assets of the British legal system and its respect for the rule of law is that solicitors and barristers are not to be equated with their clients, current or former. D1’s approach showed an ignorance of this.”
Saini J accepted Mr Wightman’s evidence that he found it difficult to act as a litigant in person and felt pressured by having to deal with correspondence, but said that was not an excuse for his approach towards Leigh Day and Ms Gregory.
The defendants only withdrew their allegation about the death threat letter on the third day of trial but in his later oral evidence Mr Wightman “still appeared unwilling to concede that Mr Packham had not forged the death threat”.
The judge said he reflected pursuing “an obviously unsustainable allegation” in the damages.