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FORMER MAYOR WINS CASE AGAINST 'VENGEFUL' BUSINESSMAN

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A former mayor, libelled from the skies by a vengeful businessman trailing banners and dropping leaflets from a lig...
A former mayor, libelled from the skies by a vengeful businessman trailing banners and dropping leaflets from a light aircraft - accusing her of being a shoplifter - has won £65,000 in damages at London's High Court.

A jury took just over two hours to decide that Jenifer Howlett, once mayor of Castlepoint BC in Essex, had been libelled by Terry Holding who was accused of pursuing a 'vindictive hate campaign' against her.

Mr Holding and his company, Holding and Barnes PLC, of Canvey Island, were sued after he took to the skies in his light aircraft and trailed banners and dropped leaflets relating to a 1996 incident at a Tesco store.

Mrs Howlett had been accused by store detectives of shoplifting a number of items from the supermarket, but always denied theft and insisted she was released without charge by police officers in the car park.

Mr Holding's case was that the former mayor received an official caution at an Essex police station following the incident - even though there was no such document on police files.

Victoria Sharp QC, for Mrs Howlett, of 30 Hermitage Avenue, Thundersley, Benfleet, had told Mr Justice Eady and the jury that Mr Holding was a 'despicable coward and a bully'.

She said his 'vindictive hate campaign' had had devastating consequences for Mrs Howlett who was still councillor at the time.

The bad feeling started when Mr Holding was trying to win planning permission for the redevelopment of a piece of land for his car salvage business, and Mrs Howlett objected to the application.

She also questioned a £20,000 donation made by Mr Holding to the council - to enable them to buy land for a new cemetery.

Not only did he fly a number of banners - one of which urged 'Sack all Shoplifters' - but he also dropped thousands of leaflets on the local area criticising Mrs Howlett and wrote letters to other politicians and local newspapers.

Miss Sharp told the jury Mrs Howlett was suffering a family crisis at the time of the incident at Tesco, had taken medication which made her drowsy and was not herself.

Since Mr Holding's campaign began, she added, the previously outgoing Mrs Howlett had suffered 'hell' at his hands and regularly broke down in tears.

Mrs Howlett had sued over three banners trailed from an aircraft, with one on April 25, 2001, saying 'Sack all Shoplifters', another on May 21, 2001, saying 'Sue me now Howlett or Resign' and a third on March 22, 2002, reading 'Thief Watch Next Election'.

She also complained about a letter written by Mr Holding to councillor Brian Wilson on January 8, 2001, and copied to 'all Councillors', local newspapers Bob Spink MP 'and other interested parties'.

Mrs Howlett welcomed the jury's decision and said she was pleased Mr Justice Eady had also agreed to issue an injunction forbidding Mr Holding and his company from repeating the libel.

'I believe Mr Holding has maintained the campaign to punish me for daring to oppose a planning application,' the former mayor of Castle Point BC added.

'He was described in court as a vindictive coward and a bully and, having goaded me into bringing the proceedings, did not even then have the courage to give evidence.

'I'm pleased my hard-earned reputation in the local community has been restored. My family can now put the past three years behind them and get on with their lives.'

Lawyers for Mrs Howlett declined to reveal how large her legal bill - which will have to be paid for by Mr Holding - is, but it is believed to run at least into six figures.

After they delivered their verdict, the jurors heard Mrs Howlett had offered to settle the case on July 28 this year, but Mr Holding, who also has to pay all his own legal costs, refused.

The terms of the earlier proposed settlement were not revealed.

Outside court Mr Holding would only say: 'There is no comment because the case isn't finished yet. We plan to go to the Court of Appeal.'

Ronald Thw aites QC, for Mr Holding, had earlier asked Mr Justice Eady for permission to appeal because, he argued, his summing up was biased towards Mrs Howlett and the jury's decision ran against the weight of the evidence.

But the judge refused his application, and said it would be 'virtually impossible' to overturn the jury's decision.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

Click hereto read more on this report.

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