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BEDFORD BC CHIEF EXECUTIVE SHRUGS OFF POLITICAL BIAS ACCUSATION

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The chief executive of Bedford BC, Shaun Field, today won£27,500 libel damages after a Tory Party agent and a loca...
The chief executive of Bedford BC, Shaun Field, today won£27,500 libel damages after a Tory Party agent and a local newspaper made a 'grave' accusation of political bias against him.

But two other council officers who also sued Bedfordshire On Sunday and Tory agent Stewart Lister had their libel claims dismissed by top judge, Mr justice Gray, at London's high court.

Despite expressing his 'considerable sympathy' for council lawyers, Michael Gough and Andy Darkoh, the judge said he had been 'driven to the conclusion' that the allegations of incompetence against them had been 'substantially justified'.

The mixed result of the case came after a lengthy high court action the total legal costs of which may well top£1m.

The case revolved around a council election held in the Brickhill Ward of Bedford in May 2000, at which 86 postal votes were accidentally overlooked on election night.

The election was extremely close with several recounts necessary before the Tory candidate was declared the winner by nine votes.

The 86 missing votes were only later discovered in an envelope on the floor after the result had been declared.

A recount of the votes reduced the Tory candidate's majority to six and did not effect the result of the election.

But it gave rise to a county court action in Bedford for an official recount of the votes cast. This was abandoned when the judge declared he could not decide the issue as he was a member of the Liberal Democrat Party who had come second in the election.

Mr Lister later issued a press release entitled 'Maladministration at Bedford Borough Council' which, in turn, led to two articles being published in Bedfordshire On Sunday in May and June 2000.

Mr justice Gray said the main 'sting' of the press release and the June article had been an allegation that Mr Field, in pursuing the county court case, 'authorised the spending of public funds in order to further the aims of one political party over another and in that way was guilty of political bias'.

Neither Bedfordshire on Sunday, nor Mr Lister, claimed there was any truth in that allegation and the judge ruled both liable to pay Mr Field libel damages over the publication of the press release and the newspaper article on 11 June 2000.

The judge said the 'strain and anxiety' suffered by Mr Field had, to some extent, been 'exacerbated by the personal sniping in which the newspaper engaged'.

Mr Lister was ordered to pay Mr Field£7,500 libel damages and Bedfordshire on Sunday must pay him£20,000.

Turning to Mr Gough, the judge said that, to the extent that he was involved in making the county court application, 'his conduct in the several respects which I have identified fell some considerable way short of what is to be expected of a competent solicitor'.

But he added: 'I do, however, reiterate that I am entirely satisfied that Mr Gough acted throughout in what he perceived to be the best interest of the council.'

The judge said he also had 'considerable sympathy' for Mr Darkoh, a barrister, but added: 'I have come to the conclusion that the manner in which Mr Darkoh handled the (county court) application fell well short, in the respects which I have indicated, of the standards to be expected of a competent barrister.

'I reach this conclusion with some regret because I consider that, through no fault of his own, he found himself in a situation with which he was not equipped to deal'.

The judge said he was 'entirely satisfied that there is no question of Mr Darkoh having sought to mislead or conceal anything from the (county court) judge'.

Nevertheless he ruled the allegation of incompetence against Mr Gough and Mr Darkoh had been 'to the extent indicated, made out'

'In the result, the claims of Mr Gough and Mr Darkoh must fail.

'Whilst I feel considerable sympathy for the way in which Bedfordshire on Sunday has seen fit to treat them ... the fact is that that I am driven to the conclusion that the defmatory imputations made against them were substantially justified.'

The judge also said the three officers had failed to prove that Mr Lister had not 'honestly believed' the comments he made about the handling of the county court application.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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