Environment Agency solicitor sues garden centres business and director for libel over press release

A solicitor at the Environment Agency is suing a garden centres business and one of its directors for libel and harassment over a press release issued in the aftermath of a prosecution he brought, it has emerged.

In Sadler v Joyner & Anor [2020] EWHC 3325 (QB) Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, handed down a written judgment last week on the meaning of words in the release.

The claimant, Dylan Sadler, has been employed at the Exeter office of the Environment Agency since 2015. He previously worked for the Army Legal Service, where he rose to the rank of Major, and Plymouth City Council.

The first defendant, Antony Joyner, is the company secretary and a director of the second defendant, Joyners Plants.  Together with two other directors of Joyners Plants, Alfred and Mark Joyner, and another family member, he is the owner of land known as Cockwells Nursery near Totnes, Devon ("the Site").

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Joyner Plants, which has three garden centres, has promoted its business through a website, www.growndirect.co.uk, on which the press release appeared. As at November 2018 the website was receiving more than 300,000 visits per year from the general public.

The Particulars of Claim set out the background to the claim and the issue of the press release:

4. From about March 2015 the Site was leased to a David Weeks who, together with his business partner Steven Loveridge, wished to operate a waste recycling business there. The First Defendant terminated or purported to terminate the lease in about January 2016 upon learning that Mr Loveridge had been convicted for an unrelated drugs offence, but the waste that had been brought on to the Site remained there. On 16 May 2016 a major fire broke out at the site and burned for some 5 days.

5. In 2018, the Environment Agency prosecuted the First Defendant, Mr Weeks and Mr Loveridge for environmental offences committed at the Site. Mr Weeks and Mr Loveridge both pleaded guilty and were sentenced at Plymouth Magistrates Court on 15 May 2018. The First Defendant was charged with two offences: (1) together with Mr Weeks and Mr Loveridge, knowingly causing or knowingly permitting the carrying on of a waste operation at the Site between 19 February 2015 and 16 May 2016 without an environmental permit being in force, contrary to regulations 38(1)(b) and 12(l)(b) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 ('Count 1'); and (2) keeping controlled waste at the site between 11 January 2016 and 19 May 2016 in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health, contrary to sections 33(6) and 33(1 )(c) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 [('Count 2')].

6. The First Defendant initially pleaded not guilty and the case was sent to the Crown Court. On 19 November 2018, the First Defendant pleaded guilty to Count 2, for which he was fined £3,600, ordered to pay £4,250 to Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, and ordered to pay £5,000 prosecution costs. Count 1 was left to lie on the Court file.

7. The Claimant was the lawyer responsible for bringing the prosecution on behalf of the Environment Agency."

Mr Sadler claimed that from about 22 November 2018 until a date unknown but believed to be in late October or early November 2019, the defendants published or caused to be published on the www.growndirect.co.uk website the press release, which he claimed was defamatory.

Judge Spearman concluded in paragraph 27 of his ruling that the words complained of in the press release bore the following meanings (the first three of which were statements of fact and the fourth of which was a statement of opinion):

  1. The Claimant knowingly induced Steve Loveridge, a convicted criminal, to invent false evidence against the First Defendant by offering him a lesser sentence.
  2. The Claimant pursued a prosecution against the First Defendant for being involved in bringing wood onto the Cockwells Nursery site near Totnes when the evidence showed there was no chance of such a prosecution succeeding, with the result that it was ultimately abandoned and £6,000 of government money was wasted.
  3. Having regard to the Claimant's handling of the case and the tactics used against the First Defendant and his inducement of Steve Loveridge to invent false evidence against the First Defendant in return for a lesser sentence, there were strong grounds to suspect that the Claimant was a solicitor who was willing to go to any length to gain a conviction, whether fair or not, and who brought this prosecution vindictively.
  4. In the light of these same facts, it was questionable whether the Claimant was suitable to occupy his position as a solicitor at the Environment Agency.

The judge later determined the preliminary issues which he had been asked to decide as follows:

  1. The natural and ordinary meaning of the statements complained of was as set out in paragraph 27.
  2. In those meanings, the statements complained of were defamatory of the Claimant at common law.
  3. The first three statements complained of were statements of fact; the fourth statement complained of was a statement of opinion.
  4. The fourth statement complained of did indicate the basis of the opinion.

In relation to the claimant's application for the costs of and occasioned by this preliminary hearing, Judge Spearman said he preferred the submissions of Mr Sadler’s counsel, Aidan Eardley.

These were that: “Although the order made at the conclusion of such hearings is often 'costs in the case', Mr Eardley submitted that the order that he sought would be appropriate in this case on the basis that: (1) as a starting point, costs ought to follow the result; (2) the Defendants had not adopted a realistic approach to the issues, and, in particular, the Claimant had been required to embark on substantial correspondence to get them to engage with the issues, which they had failed to do by complying with the applicable Pre-Action Protocol; (3) in these circumstances, and having regard to the general 'pay as you go' policy of the CPR, an immediate order for costs should have a salutary effect on the Defendants; and (4) the Second Defendant's financial position was not certain.”

The judge ordered a detailed assessment on the standard basis together with an interim payment on account of £20,000, which should be paid within 14 days..

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