Man sentenced over McCanns claims
Published 21/02/2013 | 13:46
A retired solicitor who published claims that Madeleine McCann's parents caused her death has received a suspended jail sentence.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said 65-year-old Tony Bennett deliberately flouted legal undertakings, given in November 2009, not to repeat allegations about the couple.
He said his conduct was so serious that nothing less than a custodial sentence of three months suspended for one year would reflect the harm he had done.
Finding Bennett guilty of contempt of court, the judge added: "I am sure that he intended to allege that the claimants are to be suspected of causing the death of their daughter, and did in fact dispose of her body, lie about what happened and covered up what they had done."
The judge, at London's High Court, said he was satisfied that Bennett, of Harlow, Essex, was in breach of the undertakings in each of the 13 representative instances before the court - out of 153 publications complained of. He was not asked to make findings in relation to the other alleged breaches.
He commented: "It is essential for the rule of law that injunctions and court orders be obeyed. It can't be an answer that the person who is giving an undertaking or subject to an injunction can ignore it with impunity while it is in force."
Bennett, who was ordered to pay the costs of the litigation, apologised to the court. He added: "I recognise the distress I have caused on a number of occasions to the claimants. I would like to apologise to them for that distress."
The judge said that Gerry and Kate McCann, who have not attended court, had suffered injury to their reputations and feelings and resorted to legal action not to punish Mr Bennett - but to put a stop to his repeated conduct. He agreed with lawyers for the McCanns that Bennett had played "cat and mouse" with them by complying with the undertakings some of the time. "He was testing them with false or disingenuous assurances and demands for explanations to which, as a member of the public with no responsibility for law enforcement, he was not entitled."
Later, Clarence Mitchell, the McCann family spokesman, said: "Kate and Gerry McCann brought these committal proceedings very much as a last resort. Mr Bennett has pursued an incessant campaign against them, repeatedly making false accusations against them, and ignoring the fact that the Portuguese authorities confirmed there was simply no evidence to implicate them in the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.
"In 2009 Mr Bennett gave solemn undertakings to the High Court not to continue this campaign, but he has gone on to breach these undertakings on well over 100 occasions. Concerned for the effect that Mr Bennett's campaign may have on the ongoing search for their daughter and the likelihood of new leads coming forward, the McCanns concluded they had little choice but to seek the court's intervention. Contrary to press reports, Kate and Gerry McCann did not bring the action to punish Mr Bennett or to send him to prison, but simply to get him to stop." He added: "Kate and Gerry McCann are pleased with the court's decision today and hope that it finally marks an end to Mr Bennett's campaign against them. The McCanns continue to focus their efforts on the ongoing search for their daughter Madeleine."