£125,000 damages to cleared suspect libelled by police

Posted: 6th July 2012

Arguments of justification and qualified privilege were unsuccessful in defending a libel action brought by a man acquitted of murdering his girlfriend but who Bedfordshire Police later implied in a press release had 'probably' killed her.
Amilton Bento sued Bedfordshire Police over the July 2009 press release, put out by its media office, which implied that he had killed Kamila Garsztka and wrongly escaped justice.Transport Police car
The release came two days after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) discontinued the criminal case against Mr Bento, who was originally convicted of Miss Garsztka's murder in 2007 but had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal in February 2009.
Mr Justice Bean rejected the police defences of justification and qualified privilege and awarded Mr Bento £125,000 damages. The judge found that the libel had been 'aggravated' by the Bedfordshire force's unsuccessful attempt to justify the press release by arguing in open court that Mr Bento remained the main suspect for the murder and 'probably killed' Ms Garsztka, whereas it was far more probable that Ms Garsztka had taken her own life.
Dismissing the qualified privilege defence, the judge did not accept that the public interest was served by encouraging the police to issue statements indicating their opinion that the decision of the CPS not to pursue a prosecution, or for that matter a decision of a judge that a defendant has no case to answer, is wrong because the individual concerned is, or is probably, guilty.
On the contrary, such statements were likely to reduce confidence in the criminal justice system, as well as seriously damaging the reputation of the individual.