Freddie Starr: when reputation management in the courts goes wrong

Last Friday it was announced that Freddie Starr had lost his defamation claim against Karin Ward, a woman who claimed (on the BBC and ITV) he had groped her when she was 15.

Be judicious about when to use the courts, warns Tom Rudkin
Be judicious about when to use the courts, warns Tom Rudkin
Starr sued Ward for defamation, claiming he had never met her, let alone groped her. 

However, the court found that on the balance of probabilities Ward was telling the truth, dismissing Starr's claim and ordering him to pay Ward's legal fees.  

Far from clearing his name, Starr ended up with a court finding that he had groped an underage girl, as well as a reported £1m costs bill and substantial negative press coverage.
It is worth noting that the police had previously decided in May 2014 not to pursue allegations of indecent assault made by various complainants against Starr. 

This case is an excellent example of when using litigation for reputation management purposes can go horribly wrong and serves as a reminder that defamation claims should be approached with caution. 

The risks of defamation 
Starr's evidence was undermined by the fact he had little recollection of the evening the alleged incident took place in 1974. In fact, he first denied that he had even been present, which was disproved during the trial by video footage. Indeed, his case was weakened further by several other inconsistencies in his evidence.
Clients should therefore be absolutely clear on the facts surrounding the allegations before attempting to bring a claim. Any holes in their knowledge or memory will become clear in the course of the trial and will unquestionably work against them.
The 'plebgate row'
A similar outcome can be seen in the case of Andrew Mitchell (the 'plebgate' case). Mitchell denied using the word 'pleb' against a police officer at the gates of Downing Street and sued News Group Newspapers for libel.
However, the Court found that he had used the word. The allegations now carried more weight than before, the judgement was widely reported and Mitchell faced reported costs of £3m, in addition to further damage to his reputation. 

Considerations before bringing a claim
Defamation claims by their very nature attract press attention. As a result they can be a highly effective tool for vindication where the claim is successful. However, by the same token, where the court finds against your client, the opposite is true.
Not only will clients face hefty legal costs but the allegations against them are likely to be more widely reported than they were before, with the credibility of a court judgement attached. Clients and their representatives should therefore have absolute confidence in the facts. It is also important to consider against whom the action should be brought. 
Starr decided to sue Ward rather than the BBC or ITV, which led to further allegations of 'bullying'. While the costs of suing a publication can be greater, the claim may have appeared less vindictive.

Tom Rudkin is a solicitor at Farrer & Co

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