Solicitor sues PSNI chief constable over ‘slanderous’ comment

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton is facing defamation proceedings
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton is facing defamation proceedings

A solicitor is suing the Chief Constable over an allegedly slanderous comment made by a PSNI officer during interviews with a client.

Mark Austin has issued defamation proceedings against George Hamilton, claiming the remark questioned his professionalism.

Rejecting an attempt by police to have the case halted, a High Court judge ruled that the lawyer was entitled to take the challenge seriously.

Mr Austin’s lawsuit centres on an incident while one of his clients was being questioned in connection with an undisclosed criminal offence.

He had prepared a statement signed by the suspect and received authorisation to read it into the record at his time of choosing.

In this case, the solicitor sought to read the pre-prepared statement at the end of the second police interview.

The court heard a policewoman asked why it had not been offered at the start of the interview.

Mr Austin replied that disclosure was at his discretion, but was told it was “slightly unprofessional” to offer it at that stage.

A custody sergeant alerted to the incident said the officer had no intention of retracting her comments, according to the plaintiff.

A complaint to the Police Ombudsman’s Office was ultimately upheld.

The watchdog confirmed the police officer had been provided with appropriate disciplinary action and reminded that her comment was “inappropriate, unprofessional and should not be repeated”.

In a writ seeking damages for slander and defamation, Mr Austin contended that the remark was made in the presence of his client and another interviewing officer.

It was also recorded and listened to by ombudsman staff investigating the complaint, he added.

Mr Austin argued the comment suggested he was “unprofessional in the manner by which he conducted himself as an officer of the Court and as a solicitor advising and representing a client suspected of having committed a serious criminal offence”.

Applying to have proceedings stayed, counsel for the chief constable claimed the words were trivial and had no substantial adverse impact on other people’s attitude to the solicitor.

Ruling on the application, Mr Justice Stephens concluded that the ombudsman’s decision vindicated the plaintiff.

However, he added that the defendant has asserted the solicitor acted inappropriately.

“If this action was stayed there would remain an allegation against the plaintiff that a defamatory meaning is true,” he said.

With the case set to remain within the County Court jurisdiction, the judge held there remains a challenge to the solicitor’s professionalism which he is entitled to take seriously.