The case of Selvaratnam Suresh v The Met Police
The case of Selvaratnam Suresh v the Met Police
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The case of Selvaratnam Suresh and the defence of Absolute Privilege
The case of Selvaratnam Suresh has demonstrated that the defence of absolute privilege might not apply to every claim of defamation against the police.
In the UK, there is a defence for action for defamation which is called “Absolute Privilege”. Absolute privilege is effectively a public policy defence which is designed to protect defamatory allegations made in certain situations, for example, statements made in court during or as part of legal proceedings; fair and accurate contemporaneous reports of such proceedings by the press and statements made, and documents created, in the course of a police criminal investigation.
However, not every document or statement which is created during a police criminal investigation is also protected by the defence of absolute privilege. A classic example of a case where the defence did not apply was the recent case of Selvaratnam Suresh, who sued the Met Police for defamation.
The case of Selvaratnam Suresh is an example of how the defence of absolute privilege may not always apply in cases of defamation claims against the police in the UK. In this case, several individuals had made a complaint to the Charity Commission and to the Metropolitan police that Selvaratnam Suresh, who was the chairman of the charity Oriental Fine Arts Academy of London had committed fraud and that he had misused charitable funds for his own personal gain. The claims were false and completely unfounded.
Mr Suresh was cleared by the Charity Commission of any wrongdoing following a thorough investigation. The police also investigated the allegations against him and during the course of the investigation, one of the investigating officers at the Metropolitan Police sent by email an official police letter to Mr Suresh’s accusers where he confirmed that in his view Mr Suresh had committed fraud. The letter did not point to any evidence other than to the opinion of the investigating police officer, who might or might not have been socially connected to the accusers.
Mr Suresh’s accusers then used the letter by the police officer in a public campaign against Mr Suresh which they carried out online as well as offline among Mr Suresh’s large Sri Lankan community in London. Mr Suresh subsequently brought a defamation claim against the police and against his accusers.
The Met police first argued that the letter which was sent by the investigating officer was covered by absolute privilege but following the commencement of legal action by Mr Suresh’s lawyer, Yair Cohen, the police finally conceded to have defamed Mr Suresh in the letter.
They agreed that the letter to Mr Suresh’s accusers was not sent in the course of an investigation. In other words, the letter did not form part of the investigation and there was nothing in the letter, which was intended to progress or advance the investigation. As a result, the Met police had to accept liability for defamation and pay Mr Suresh a substantial amount of damages and to issue a written apology to him.
The case paved the way for Mr Suresh to sue his accusers for defamation, a claim which was subsequently successful. The case also highlights the fact that not all documents or statements created during a police criminal investigation will be protected by the defence of absolute privilege.
The police and other law enforcement agencies must be careful to ensure that any statements they make or documents they produce are accurate, relevant and necessary for the purposes of the investigation, and do not cause unnecessary harm to the reputation of the individuals concerned.
Whilst the defence of absolute privilege protects statements which can fairly be said to be part of the process of investigating a crime or a possible crime, the letter which was sent by the police officer to members of the public and to public officials was no such statement.
The letter made inaccurate statements about the evidence against Mr Suresh, and wrongly advocated for steps to be taken against him by the Charity Commission, such as his removal from his position as a trustee. The mere fact that the police officer who sent the letter had made references in the letter to an ongoing investigation did not mean that the letter formed part of a legitimate investigation process.