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News: UKIP MEP fails in attempt to rely on European Parliamentary immunity to avoid English libel action.
Jane Collins, the UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, has failed in her attempt to stay a libel action by relying on the “Privileges and Immunities of the European Union“.
Ms Collins was sued for libel by three Rotherham Labour MPs over a speech she gave at the UKIP conference in September 2014. In a judgment given in April 2015 (Barron MP & Ors v Collins MEP  EWHC 1125), Warby J concluded that the speech meant, inter alia, that
“each of the three Rotherham MPs “knew many of the details of the scandalous child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham over a period of sixteen years, in the course of which an estimated 1,400 children were raped, beaten, plied with alcohol and drugs, and threatened with violence by men of Asian origin, yet deliberately chose not to intervene but to allow the abuse to continue.” 
On 26 May 2015, Ms Collins made an offer of amends – offering to make a suitable correction and apology and to pay damages and costs. The parties could not agree the amount of compensation and a hearing was listed for 18 December 2015.
Ms Collins successfully applied to adjourn that hearing on the ground that she was unwell. She also made an “Application to Vacate” the offer of amends. A hearing of that application – and if, it was unsuccessful of the assessment of compensation under the offer of amends – was fixed for 16 May 2016.
On 3 May 2016, Ms Collins wrote to the President of the European Parliament requesting Parliament to defend her immunity as an MEP. She claimed that she was being sued for expressing an opinion whilst carrying out her duties as an MEP.
On 10 May 2016 Ms Collins wrote to the Court (but not to the claimants) seeking a stay of the libel action. Warby J directed that this application should be communicated to the claimants and for written submissions on the stay application.
On 16 May 2016, the Court heard oral argument on the issue of a stay. Ms Collins relied on Article 8 of the “Privileges and Immunities of the European Union” which provides that
“Members of the European Parliament shall not be subject to any form of inquiry, detention or legal proceedings in respect of opinions expressed or votes cast by them in the performance of their duties”.
Warby J gave judgment dismissing the application for a stay. He noted that Member states had a duty of sincere co-operation with EU institautions – a duty reflected in Article 4(3) of the the 2009 Treaty on European Union. As a result, as noted in Marra v De Gregorio
“where an action has been brought against a Member of the European Parliament before a national court and that court is informed that a procedure for defence of the privileges and immunities of that Member, as provided for in Article 6(3) of the Rules of Procedure, has been initiated, that court must stay the judicial proceedings and request the Parliament to issue its opinion as soon as possible” .
Although the Court was not bound by the opinion of the Parliament, once it had been informed that the immunities procedure had been initiated it was bound to wait for the opinion and stay the proceedings in the meantime.
Nevertheless, he concluded that in the present case, the Court had not yet been “informed” within the meaning of Marra. There had been no formal communication to the court from Parliament. As a result, the hearing continued. A copy of the judge’s judgment was sent to the European Parliament.
It is perhaps surprising to see a UKIP MEP seeking to rely on European Law to stay an English libel action. It will be interesting to see whether Parliament now raises a formal immunity communication and, if so, what its opinion is on the immunity issue.
[Update: Stay now granted]
On 17 May 2016, the President of the European Parliament wrote to the Court stating that the immunity procedure had been initiated and, as a result, Warby J granted a stay pending receipt of the Parliament’s opinion. He made an order that Ms Collins pay the costs thrown away by the late stay application.
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