Tory Bear has followed up on this post, and Political Scrapbook has decided that what you are about to read is “Tory boy lawyer-speak”. You have been warned!
The latest twist in the #kerryout / #kerryin saga comes courtesy of the Daily Mirror, which claims today that the Tory PPC for Bristol East, Adeela Shafi, has had several county court judgements (CCJs) made against her since 2007. The Mirror goes on to claim that one of these CCJs is for £324,272 and is “outstanding”.
Naturally, this news has delighted those hoping to keep #kerryin, and they’ve wasted no time in proclaiming it an embarrassment for prominent #kerryout campaigners, talking about wheels coming off, and crying “You’re not spinning anymore!” on Twitter.
[No news yet on the views of the #kerryshakeitallabout campaign.]
Some deep calming breaths may be in order on this one.
While the Mirror’s story may look straight forward enough, it is curiously lacking in obvious detail – such as to whom these “debts” were owed, or the circumstances in which they were incurred – and there is no comment at all from the debtor, despite the substantial amount the Mirror claims is “outstanding”, and the length of time since the judgement.
You would think that any journalist, let alone one from a left-wing, Labour-partisan newspaper, would want to include in information about the circumstances in which these CCJs were incurred. It also seems strange not to approach the claimants for comment – and there is no indication in the story that the Mirror did. Why wouldn’t you ask the claimant why the debt is “outstanding”?
I suspect I know why.
The central register of country court judgements for England and Wales is maintained by the Registry Trust, a not for profit company set up in the early 1980s. Anyone can search the register, for a small fee, and the credit industry buys the data in bulk.
One of the interesting things about the register is what it doesn’t contain: to whom a CCJ debt is owed, or the circumstances in which it was incurred. A register entry for a CCJ consists of the amount, the court which made the judgement, the case number, and the date of the judgement.
So…the Mirror’s story contains no more information than could be found in a Registry Trust search against Adeela Shafi, and lacks the information which is not present in the CCJ register? The conclusion I draw is that the only basis for the Mirror story is a search of the CCJ register.
If that is correct, then the terms in which the story is written may yet prove problematic for the Mirror. It is specifically said that
…£324,272 is outstanding – despite her being ordered to repay it nearly three years ago in July 2007 – five months before she became a prospective Tory MP.
This goes well beyond the contents of a Registry Trust search result. The Register does hold a status for each CCJ, either “satisfied” or “unsatisfied”, but unsatisfied is not the same as unpaid.
Unsatisfied indicates that Registry Trust has never been notified of payment, whereas satisfied means that the debt was paid more than a month after the judgement. If a debt is paid within one month of judgement (or the judgement is set aside), the CCJ is removed from the register altogether, and there would be no trace of it in any subsequent search.
There is a clear implication in saying that a debt is “outstanding”, which does not arise from saying a debt was “marked as unsatisfied on the Register of County Court judgements”, and that implication has happily taken up by those commenting on the Mirror’s story.
Political Scrapbook said the Mirror had reported that Shafi had
…defaulted on ‘debts’ of nearly £325,000
and in fairness to the Mirror (I don’t say that often) they didn’t go that far. PS also talks about the disqualification of undischarged bankrupts from standing for Parliament, a theme Liberal Conspiracy echoes. There’s even a David Cameron poster for the occasion.
So here’s the problem – at this point there’s no evidence that Adeela Shafi owes a penny, but there’s a very clear implication from the Mirror that she owes £324,272. I’ve set out above why I think all the Mirror has is a CCJ register search – which can’t support that implication. You can defame by implication, of course, and an implication that someone has failed to pay a substantial amount despite a judgement is plainly defamatory.
Has the Mirror exposed itself to a defamation suit here? It will turn on whether there is some truth in the implication, and so far there has been no comment from either Shafi or the Conservative Party.
On a related note, why didn’t the Mirror bother to access the court records? From these they could have obtained the names of the claimants in these cases, and details of the circumstances. That would have nicely padded out the story – frankly, have turned it into something worth printing. Tory Bear is probably right to say
ooh clever, tip off the mirror, coordinated blog and twitter attack and phone bank on the same day. Labour machine kicks in! #kerryout
The Mirror story has the hallmark of a tip-off from someone who was conducting opposition research. If it is that, this at least explains the total lack of actual reporting. It certainly doesn’t excuse it.