Manchester Metropolitan University spent almost £1.2 million in legal costs defending a libel action brought by one of its own academics despite a Lithuanian university also involved in the case settling for one-tenth of the sum.
A Freedom of Information request by Times Higher Education revealed that Manchester Met spent £1,181,454 relating to a court case surrounding a document known as the “Vilnius memo”, which an employee from Vilnius University wrote about Khalid Ansari, a former senior lecturer in the department of food and tourism management at Manchester Met.
In August 2007, several staff from Manchester Met including Mr Ansari visited Vilnius in connection with a project to create a joint master’s programme. This was followed by a return visit by staff from Vilnius that December.
During the return visit, Viktorija Zilinskaite, at the time a project coordinator at Vilnius, sent an email about Mr Ansari to his supervisors and another Manchester Met academic, Timothy Knowles.
According to court judgments from the case, the email contained a series of allegations – later acknowledged as false by Vilnius – about Mr Ansari’s professional and personal conduct.
Dr Knowles, now a principal lecturer in the tourism and events management department in the Hollings Faculty at Manchester Met, forwarded the email to two colleagues in the university’s human resources department and the head of another academic department, which lawyers argued made him a co-author and re-publisher of the memo. He denies that he was a co-author.
In a bid to restore his reputation, Mr Ansari sued Ms Zilinskaite, Vilnius University, Dr Knowles and Manchester Met for defamation in 2008. The case began at the Liverpool District Registry but eventually ended up in the High Court in 2012.
In March of that year, Vilnius University settled for £112,500 and also made a statement in open court acknowledging that the allegations in the memo were untrue and ought not to have been made.
At the time of the settlement with Vilnius, Mr Ansari – who was employed by Manchester Met until May 2011 – said that the allegations had “devastated” his personal and professional life, according to a statement issued by his lawyers. However, Manchester Met and Dr Knowles were not party to the settlement and continued to fight the case by seeking to strike out part of Mr Ansari’s claim in the High Court.
Their claim was dismissed by High Court judge Mr Justice Eady in 2012, but they took the case to the Court of Appeal, where judges again ruled against them in November 2013. A trial was then scheduled to start in June last year, but the case was reportedly settled out of court.
In its Freedom of Information request, THE asked Manchester Met for the total legal costs to the university of the case. Neither the institution nor Mr Ansari would comment on the case or Manchester Met’s legal costs.