Tom Elliott has been awarded damages of almost £50,000 for an “outrageous” libel of him by Phil Flanagan.
The High Court has ordered the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA to pay the constituency’s MP £48,750 over a tweet which falsely claimed that Mr Elliott had shot and harassed people during his time in the Ulster Defence Regiment.
The judge, Mr Justice Stephens, actually awarded £75,000 against Mr Flanagan but discounted that to take account of various factors, including the fact that Mr Flanagan had not sought to justify his actions and had therefore admitted that he was wrong.
The judge also discounted the award to take account of his ultimate apology and offer to pay damages to Mr Elliott, as well as the limited circulation of the material.
In a written judgment which follows a hearing last month, Mr Justice Stephens said: “I consider that the appropriate award absent mitigation is £75,000. I reduce that by 35 per cent and award the plaintiff £48,750.”
Mr Flanagan is attempting to get the Assembly’s insurers to pay for the libel. The insurance company has refused to do so and Mr Flanagan is suing them in a separate case.
Ordering a temporary stay on the payment being made, the judge ruled that Mr Flanagan would not have to pay the compensation and legal costs for the libel action until the outcome of the other case is known.
Neither Mr Flanagan nor Mr Elliott was in court yesterday morning, but both were present at a previous hearing.
The Sinn Fein man – who on Sunday was reselected to contest May’s Assembly election, having initially been deselected – made the comments on Twitter on May 1, 2014.
The tweet only stayed up for one hour before the MLA deleted it and it was seen by just 167 people – but Mr Flanagan now faces a huge bill for his comment.
Mr Flanagan’s exact tweet – which Mr Elliott insisted be read out in court at an earlier hearing so that it could be publicly reported – read: “Tom Elliot talks to @StephenNolan about the past. I wonder if he will reveal how many people he harassed or shot as a member of the UDR.”
Mr Flanagan never sought to justify his words nor to suggest that they were in fact true, something which the judge took into account when setting the level of compensation, as that meant that Mr Elliott realised quite early on in the legal proceedings that he would in fact win the case so did not have the distress of wondering about the outcome.
Mr Justice Stephens described it as “a most serious libel” and said that the “baseless” allegations were “grossly defamatory”.
He said: “It was an outrageous libel in relation to an individual of considerable standing, attacking his integrity at a most fundamental level.
“It affected a core aspect of the plaintiff’s life with implications as to his trustworthiness in public life and as a representative for all the members of the constituency which he had represented and which he was seeking to represent in the future. In short, one of the objective features is that this was an outrageously bad libel.”
However, considering the impact of the libel, the judge said that Mr Elliott was not “shunned, pilloried or ostracised” over the issue and had in fact been elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone subsequent to Mr Flanagan’s allegations.
And he also said: “I consider it to have been a grave libel but that it had less effect on the plaintiff than it would have had on others who, for instance, do not have the experience of having to deal with the heat of political debate.”
The judge said that in vindicating Mr Elliott’s reputation, “there should also be a part of the [damages] award sufficient to convince a bystander of the baselessness of the charge ... but that element is reduced given the apology.”
If Mr Flanagan had apologised earlier and offered “a realistic amount of compensation”, than the £75,000 award would have been cut by 50 per cent to £37,500.
Big damages award works out at £355 per letter
The libel award against Phil Flanagan is one of the biggest in the relatively brief history of social media defamation claims.
Given that the libel only consisted of just 137 characters, the award equates to £355 per letter. And the award would have been much higher – the equivalent of £547 – had it not been for various mitigating factors, including the fact that Mr Flanagan never attempted to defend his comments by claiming that they were true.
UUP MP feared for safety of his family
Last month Phil Flanagan admitted that he seriously libelled his constituency rival and issued an apology.
In court last month an agreed statement was read out in which Mr Flanagan accepted his tweet was untrue, wholly without foundation and he apologised for all offence caused.
Tom Elliott told an earlier court hearing that he had feared for his security after the tweet, believing that dissident republicans could target him if they believed that he had been responsible for actions falsely alleged by Mr Flanagan.
The MP told the court: “If people were to believe I shot or harassed people when I was a member of the UDR that was going to have an impact on me but also my family as well.”
By contrast to Mr Elliott, Mr Flanagan chose to give no evidence in court.