In a Statement in Open Court [pdf] read out on Friday 3 May 2013, the Metropolitan Police admitted they had failed to take adequate steps to remove posters suggesting that Leslie Austin, a Hackney resident, was involved in the Hackney riots. The posters continued to be published for some months after officers accepted his role during the riots was as a “Good Samaritan” and “a model citizen”. The police agreed to pay substantial damages and his legal costs and undertook not to repeat the allegations.
On 8 August 2011, Mr Austin left his office to find vulnerable members of the community caught up in the growing tensions in Hackney. Mr Austin escorted an elderly woman to safety, removed debris from the route of a bus and entered a smoke filled building in an effort to bring its residents to safety. He was commended three times that night by police officers for his efforts. Nine months later, Mr Austin was shocked to find his image on police posters displayed in Hackney describing him as a person wanted for involvement in rioting. Mr Austin immediately attended the police station and explained his role, where his account was accepted by officers and he was eliminated from enquiries. Despite assurances from the police that the posters would be promptly removed, Mr Austin’s image remained on the police website for several weeks, was published in the Hackney Gazette a week after he was cleared of any involvement and remained on posters for a further two months. Mr Austin was forced to explain his role during the riots to his employer, local residents and shopkeepers, causing him great embarrassment and distress.
Mr Austin issued libel proceedings against the Metropolitan Police in October 2012 in relation to the publications which took place after the date when the police accepted he had not been involved in rioting. The Met initially sought to defend proceedings, pleading justification, privilege and/or consent. These Defences were based on publication prior to the date on which the police accepted Mr Austin was not a rioter and the Met claimed that, at that point, there were grounds to suspect Mr Austin of an offence. The Met Police also sought to defend the proceedings on the basis of an absolute privilege attaching to all publications.
In response, the Claimant argued that the publications complained of took place after he had been eliminated from enquiries, at which point there could not be any qualified privilege or justification defence, and the publications at that point were not conduct which could;
“fairly be said to be part of the process of investigating a crime or possible crime with a view to prosecution or possible prosecution” (Taylor v SFO  4 All ER 801).
The Met finally agreed that the publication of the posters after Mr Austin had been cleared were serious and damaging libels and agreed to pay damages, costs and to make a joint Statement in Open Court. Matthew Nicklin QC, appearing on behalf of Mr Austin, told the judge of the effect of the publications:
“This was extremely distressing to the Claimant. Not only was it false in his case, but he felt his safety to be at risk as there had been revenge attacks following the riots”.
The Met accepted that Mr Austin was in fact a “Good Samaritan” with a “public spirited attitude” and apologised for its failure to take adequate steps to remove the posters. The Met also accepted that Mr Austin had been caused much distress and great concern by the continuing publications and agreed to pay him substantial damages and his legal costs.
The Statement was widely reported in the press
Tamsin Allen and Samantha Broadley of Bindmans Media Team acted for the Claimant in the proceedings with Matthew Nicklin QC