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Defamation by the police

The case of Selvaratnam Suresh v the Met Police

Defamation by the police

The case of our client, Selvaratnam Suresh, demonstrates that the defence of absolute privilege cannot automatically apply to every claim of defamation against the police.

What is the defence of absolute privilege

What happened in the case of Selvaratnam Suresh against the Metropolitan Police

In what circumstances would the defence of absolute privilege disapply to the police investigation

What was the significance of the case of Suresh v the Met Police

What is the defence of absolute privilege

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.

Defamation And Absolute Privilege Legal Advice FAQ

Absolute Privilege in UK defamation law serves as a public policy defence protecting certain defamatory statements made in specific contexts, such as during legal proceedings, in court, and within certain police investigations. This defence ensures that individuals can speak freely without the fear of defamation claims in these contexts. However, not every statement or document produced in a police investigation is safeguarded by absolute privilege, highlighting its limitations and the need for accuracy and relevance in such communications.

Selvaratnam Suresh, chairman of the Oriental Fine Arts Academy of London, faced unfounded fraud allegations, leading to a police investigation. The Metropolitan Police sent an official letter to the accusers, suggesting Suresh's guilt without substantial evidence. This letter, used by the accusers in a smear campaign, led Suresh to sue the police and his accusers for defamation. Ultimately, the police acknowledged the letter was not part of the investigation, admitting to defaming Suresh, resulting in compensation and an apology to him.

The defence of absolute privilege does not extend to all police communications. For example, in Selvaratnam Suresh's case, the Metropolitan Police conceded that a letter sent by an officer, which falsely implicated Suresh in fraud, was outside the scope of their investigation and thus not protected. This distinction underscores the importance of ensuring that police statements and documents are directly related to, and necessary for, the investigation to warrant absolute privilege protection.

The Suresh v the Met Police case underscored the limitations of the absolute privilege defence in defamation claims against the police. It highlighted the necessity for police statements and documents to be accurate, relevant, and integral to the investigation to be protected under absolute privilege. The case also set a precedent for individuals defamed in similar contexts to challenge such defamatory statements, promoting accountability and caution in police communications.

What happened in the case of Selvaratnam Suresh against the Metropolitan Police

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 our client, 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 amongst Mr Suresh’s large Sri Lankan community in London. Mr Suresh subsequently brought a defamation claim against the police and against his accusers.

In what circumstances would the defence of absolute privilege disapply to the police investigation

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.

What was the significance of the case of Suresh v the Met Police

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.

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