Evidence from Withers LLP |
Ev 2A: Letter from Withers LLP
to the Speaker, 14 January 2010
John Hemming MPEmergency Debate 14 January
We understand that there is to be what is being reported
as an 'emergency debate' today in the House concerning an allegation
by Mr Hemming MP that an e-mail sent to him by our firm on 4 August
2009 was intimidatory and constitutes a contempt of the House.
We strongly deny that this is the case.
We assume that you are aware that this matter was
canvassed in correspondence between this firm and the Clerk to
the House as long ago as November 2009 and we enclose copies of
that correspondence to assist you before the proposed debate.
We would ask you to note that an apology and an undertaking not
to repeat defamatory allegations are entirely appropriate and
are usual requests in any libel complaint. Our e-mail of 4 August
2009 was sent during negotiations for a public apology in relation
to the defamatory leaflet about which our client complained, but
in response to Mr Hemming's then assertion in the context of those
negotiations that he would 'make
reference to [the allegations] at my earliest opportunity in a
speech in the House of Commons'. As
our e-mail of 11 August 2009 makes entirely clear, we were not
'in any way seeking
to limit what you [Mr Hemming] choose to say in Parliament'.
Given this correspondence, we can confirm without
hesitation that Mr Hemming's allegation that we were seeking to
stifle a debate in parliament, is entirely without foundation.
As Mr Hemming's allegation is not new, we are concerned
that it has been tabled for emergency debate without any notice
to us and consequently without our having any opportunity to explain
fully the issues to you from our perspective.
Our provision to you of our correspondence with Mr
Hemming is of course, in no way a waiver of our client's privilege
Please acknowledge safe receipt of this letter.
Ev 2: Letter from Withers LLP
to the Clerk of the Committee, 25 January 2010, by hand
On Friday evening, I attended a consultation with
Leading Counsel at which he reviewed with me both the law, the
e-mail of which complaint is made and the surrounding context.
In the light of that advice, I am now satisfied that
my stance hitherto in relation to the third paragraph of my e-mail
of 4 August 2009 to Mr Hemming was mistaken. I accept that it
was wrong to seek in that paragraph to make the settlement of
a possible libel action in relation to a leaflet published outside
Parliament conditional on an undertaking from Mr Hemming restricting
what he might say in Parliament. Accordingly, I would like unreservedly
to apologise to the House and to Mr Hemming.
I hope that the House will accept that I did not
intend any improper interference in their procedures and was acting
in the best interests of my client, as I then perceived them.
I emphasise that the fault is mine and not that of Mr Knight Adams.
As a courtesy, I have sent a copy of this letter
to the Clerk to the House in view of his helpful letter to me
dated 3 November 2009 and I should be grateful if you would forward
a copy of this letter to Mr Hemming.
Please let me know whether, in the light of this
letter, the Committee still requires my evidence before it next
meets on 2 February 2010. I look forward to hearing from you.
Ev 6: Letter from Withers LLP
to the Clerk of the Committee, 1 February 2010
I understand that the Committee no longer needs evidence
from me in the light of my unreserved apology contained in my
letter dated 25 January 2010, but that it is open to me to supplement
the documents with any explanations to assist the Committee. In
the circumstances, I would like briefly to explain why I took
the position I did. For ease of reference, I divide my evidence
into numbered paragraphs and have added the timings of relevant
emails in brackets. I emphasise that my evidence is directed at
explaining my position at the time and does not detract from my
apology in any way.
1. My client, a property developer, had threatened
libel proceedings arising from a leaflet which Liberal Democrat
Councillors had circulated in Yardley concerning The Swan development,
the defence of which Mr John Hemming MP took up on 30 July 2009.
In accordance with usual practice in defamation cases, I sought
in addition to an apology, costs and damages (payable to a charity)
an undertaking that neither Mr Hemming nor anyone else in the
Liberal Democrat Party would repeat the defamatory remarks.
2. The initial negotiations on 30 July 2009 were
constructive. However, this changed in the course of a number
of emails sent from Mr Hemming to me on 3 August 2009. He opened
with a proposal for a replacement leaflet to be circulated by
the Liberal Democrats (email JH to JM timed 12:32), the wording
of which was entirely anodyne and contained no suggestion that
my client was guilty of any 'spoiling tactics' in relation to
any planning development. I was initially unclear as to whether
this was a rewording of the clarification Mr Hemming had earlier
offered (hence my email timed 14:07), but Mr Hemming promptly
explained that it was not and that the clarification was a separate
issue (email JH to JM timed 14:23).
3. So far, Mr Hemming had disputed my client's
interpretation of the leaflet, but had made no suggestion of any
impropriety against my client. Twenty minutes later, however,
(email JH to JM timed 14:43), without any further email from me,
Mr Hemming stated that he had information concerning two developments
(Maypole and Worcester) from which 'it could be argued
that tactics leading to delay
viz spoiling tactics had
been used' (my emphasis). At the end of the same email a possible
argument was transformed into an outright allegation that my client
'has a track record of spoiling tactics', which is denied
by my client. No detail whatever was given to support the allegation
and the only threat to deploy it was 'in the unlikely event'
that proceedings were brought.
4. Twenty minutes later, Mr Hemming changed his
position again (email JH to JM timed 15:02) and made an outright
threat to raise my client's alleged misconduct not in proceedings
(if they arose), but in the House:
Mr Hemming wrote:
'I consider that his behaviour in respect of the
development at The Swan has indeed been a spoiling tactic. I do
intend, therefore, making reference to this at my earliest possible
opportunity in a speech in the House of Commons and referring
to the other situations which we are aware of when he has acted
in a manner to delay developments.'
Mr Hemming also said that our threatened libel proceedings
would be described in his Commons speech as 'bullying tactics
and the way in which [our client] attempts to gag opponents'.
5. I hope the Committee will understand why,
from my perspective, this threat seemed unreasonable. No indication
whatever had been given of what the alleged spoiling tactics comprised.
My client, therefore, had been given no opportunity to give his
side of the story, although later Mr Hemming appeared to accept
that this was only right and proper. It seemed very strange to
propose an anodyne wording for a new leaflet, then to make allegations
which were said only arguably to amount to misconduct, and then
to threaten to make outright allegations of misconduct but only
under the protection of parliamentary privilegeall within
a matter of hours on the same day.
6. Some thirty five minutes later, Mr Hemming
sent a further email (email JH to JM timed 15:38), which made
no reference to his threat to raise the matter in the House and
suggested that the matter could be settled to the 'reasonable
satisfaction' of both sides. I found this odd as it did not
sit easily with his position in the immediately preceding email.
7. My response of 4 August 2009 (email JM to
JH timed 17:51) was prompted by my perception that an undertaking
not to repeat the libel outside Parliament would be worthless
to my client if the allegations were repeated, and indeed expanded
on, by Mr Hemming inside Parliament. However, as my letter of
apology makes clear, I fully accept that I was wrong in that email
to make settlement of my client's libel complaint in any way conditional
on any undertaking from Mr Hemming as to what he might, or might
not, say in the House.
8. It remained my, mistaken, view that my position
was justified until my consultation with Leading Counsel on the
evening of Friday 22 January 2010. Until then I accept that I
strongly defended my position. I was also robustly seeking to
defend my client's rights and protect his reputation during hard
fought negotiations. As soon, however, as I appreciated my error,
I immediately notified the Committee and the Clerk to the House
in my formal letter of apology delivered by hand on the following
Monday morning, 25 January 2010.
9. There is one other matter I mention in view
of its seriousness. In an email dated 11 August 2009 (email JH
to JM timed 11:35) Mr Hemming alleged that I was guilty of an
attempt to pervert the course of justice. That allegation of serious
criminal conduct is for the record entirely without foundation.
I have sought to confine my evidence to what I understand
to be the complaint against me. I hope that my apology will be
accepted by the Committee and the House. However, if I can be
of any further assistance to the Committee on these or any other
points, please let me know.
Ev 7: E-mail from John Hemming
MP to Withers LLP on 30 July, submitted by Withers LLP
From: John Hemming
To: Jennifer McDermott
Sent: 30 July, 2009 3:11 PM
Jeremy Knight Adams
In accordance with the pre-action protocol with defamation
as found here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/civil/procrules_fin/contents/protocols/prot_def.htm#IDA0AO4B
It is difficult to produce a response within the
deadline you have indicated.
The words in the leaflet are as follows:
"During July, a public enquiry is taking / has
taken place into compulsory purchase of land needed by Tesco for
their supermarket at the Swan.
A few small plots have been purchased by people with
the intention of delaying the Tesco development. We are appalled
at the 'spoiling' tactics and have supported Tescos at the enquiry."
I personally would be willing to make the following
apology / correction
Apology to Jeremy Knight Adams
We recently circulated a leaflet in the Yardley District
in which alleged that a few small plots had been purchased by
people with the intention of delaying the Tesco supermarket development
at the Swan. We would like to clarify that those plots (now all
owned by Tesco) are not the plots which are currently owned by
Jeremy Knight Adams which are the subject to the current enquiry.
We now understand that the owner of the plots, Mr Jeremy Knight
Adams, purchased them over 20 years ago and he introduced Tesco
to the site in 1993. He did not purchase the plots to delay the
Tesco development. His aim is to secure for Yardley the new development
which complies with local, regional and national planning policies.
He has no objection whatsoever if Tesco carries out a development
along the lines he has proposed and he is prepared to do all he
can to bring this about.
We unreservedly apologise to Mr Knight Adams for
any confusion that may have arise from our article.
Most importantly I am willing to make that statement
for the purposes of the inquiry tomorrow which is the basis upon
which you are arguing undue haste.
28 This letter was forwarded to the Committee by the
Speaker's Secretary Back
See Ev pp 48 to 50, below Back