Libelled lecturer awarded £10K

Salford pays for refusal to apologise over expense claim allegation. Melanie Newman reports

August 14, 2008

A lecturer has won £10,000 after suing his university for libel.

Tom McMaster, a lecturer in business at the University of Salford, took legal action after the university's finance director sent an email alleging that Dr McMaster had made a fraudulent expenses claim.

Dr McMaster said he initially asked for an apology, but the university refused to give one.

He told Times Higher Education that the expenses claim related to a conference he had attended in the Republic of Ireland in 2006.

The lecturer, a keen sailor, obtained permission from his research director to travel there by boat with some friends rather than use public transport.

After the conference, he submitted a claim for £180 to cover fuel and other costs.

The claim was refused and he sent a chasing email to Ray Corner, the finance director at the time, seeking confirmation that the university would reimburse his expenses.

Mr Corner replied in an email copied to four colleagues, saying: "Clearly the original claim was an attempted fraud and appropriately rejected.

"Those who submitted and certified it should be ashamed of themselves."

Dr McMaster said: "I demanded an explanation but he did not respond, so I instructed my lawyers to send him a letter asking for a full retraction, an apology and a proposal for damages and legal costs. The letter advised Mr Corner to seek legal advice and said that if an apology was not forthcoming we would hold the university responsible."

Mr Corner's reply repeated the allegation, Dr McMaster said, so he decided to pursue a libel claim against the university.

In March this year, Salford applied to the High Court to have the matter struck out on the grounds that it was a frivolous action. The judge refused the application and the university then offered to settle the case for £10,000, which the lecturer accepted.

"I imagine this will have cost the university about £100,000, including legal fees," he said. "I would have settled for a simple apology."

After the court case, Dr McMaster filed grievances against Mr Corner, a human resources officer who investigated the grievance and the university's registrar, who oversaw his initial complaint.

He said he had not yet received his expenses for the trip to Galway.

"I used to love my work," he said, adding that this was no longer the case.

Mr Corner has taken early retirement, but he is understood to have worked for the university as a consultant since then.

Dr McMaster's lawyer, Mark Manley of Brabners Chaffe Streets, said: "My client and I tried in vain to avoid having to sue, but the defendants seemed determined to fight the claim and ultimately settled it after losing an application for summary judgment.

"What could have been resolved swiftly and cheaply had ended up costing the defendants dearly."

A university spokesperson said: "The university has reached a settlement with Dr McMaster, and we cannot comment on any outstanding grievance issues concerning him."

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