McCanns give evidence but libel trial postponed yet again

In Lisbon this week for their libel action against former lead detective Gonçalo Amaral, Kate and Gerry McCann passionately denounced his controversial book, A Verdade da Mentira (The Truth of the Lie). The McCanns are seeking more than a million euros in compensation for the harm they claim the book has caused.
In giving evidence at Lisbon’s Palace of Justice on Tuesday, the McCanns said the book and a subsequent TV documentary had severely hampered the search for their daughter, Madeleine, and caused their family great distress.
A court session scheduled for this Thursday (July 10) was to have heard closing arguments from lawyers representing Amaral, his publisher and the makers and presenter of the TV documentary based on the book. It was postponed because of an application from the McCanns’ lawyer requesting information about Amaral’s finances. It is not expected to be rescheduled until September at the earliest.
The McCanns feel outraged that Amaral alleged in his book that they were involved in the inadvertent death of their daughter Madeleine in May 2007 and that they hid her body and fabricated a story about abduction.
Having had their hopes of addressing the libel trial dashed several times, Madeleine’s parents were finally given the opportunity this week during what was to be the closing phase of a civil action that has dragged on for five years.
Between them, the McCanns gave evidence for about an hour-and-a-half. They said that reading extracts of the book on the internet shortly after the shelving of the Portuguese investigation into her daughter’s disappearance left them feeling distressed and defeated.
Amaral’s lawyer questioned Kate McCann on this, noting that she had been able to count on many supporters, including celebrities, but both Mrs McCann and her husband insisted that the book put off many people, particularly in Portugal, from continuing to help in the hunt for their daughter.
Both spoke of their concern that Madeleine’s twin siblings were getting to an age when they are becoming aware of false claims through the media and the internet. For example, their son, Sean, now nine, questioned them after hearing on the radio that they had hidden Madeleine’s body.
After giving evidence, Gerry McCann told reporters outside the courthouse that whoever kidnapped Madeleine must have been “laughing these last six years” at the book’s claim that “there was no abduction and that there is no predator out there”.
He said he and his wife were “really pleased” with the action currently being taken by British and Portuguese police to find Madeleine.
They do not know whether she is alive or not, but “there is no evidence that she is dead,” he said. “We still do have hope.”
There will be no further hearings in the libel trial before the courts go into summer recess between next Tuesday July 15 and the end of August. No date has been announced for the next hearing or for a verdict. Even if a verdict comes in October, it is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The losing side may lodge an appeal.
In a further complication in an already convoluted process, the McCanns have been given the opportunity to present authorisation from the British High Court to represent their daughter Madeleine who was made a ward of court at the instigation of her parents in April 2008. Should this authorisation not be forthcoming, the Lisbon judge is expected to disallow the parents’ rights to formally represent Madeleine. This could have consequences for the amount of any compensation eventually awarded.
The Judge, Maria Emília Melo e Castro, suspended the trial in January last year so that the two sides could try to reach an out-of-court settlement. In the absence of an agreement, the trial resumed six months later but was unexpectedly postponed because one of children of Amaral’s then lawyer, Victor Santos de Oliveira, was having an operation in hospital.
When the hopes for closing arguments had to be suspended last month because of Amaral’s last-minute dismissal of his lawyer, the McCanns said it was a deliberate delaying tactic, “a blatant and cynical attempt to wear us down”.
Amaral denies this. A reliable source close to Amaral has told us it was because of a commutation failure on a significant development within the case: his lawyer had failed to tell him that an appellate count had granted a request from the McCanns to address the libel trial directly.
Annoyed at learning of this at a late stage, Amaral sought outside advice and informed his lawyer of his decision to dismiss him the night before the scheduled hearing three weeks ago. He informed the court accordingly at 9am the following day, half-an-hour before the start of the hearing.
Three days later, he instructed a new lawyer, Miguel Cruz Rodrigues, who was in court this week.
The book at the centre of all the turmoil was first published in July 2008 soon after the original Portuguese investigation had been shelved. It is said to have sold more than 200,000 copies in Portugal and was translated into nine European languages as well as being made available in English on the internet. A documentary based on the book was shown on Portuguese TV.
The book had been on sale for a year by the time the McCanns sought a ban on it and started their libel action. They obtained an injunction banning further sales of the book in September 2009.
A subsequent two-month court hearing resulted in the ban being upheld in February 2010, but the following October an appeals court reversed this decision on the grounds that blocking sales had broken “a constitutional and universal right: that of opinion and freedom of expression.”
This did not dampen the McCanns’ resolve to press ahead with their defamation case.
Were they right to do so? In response to an Resident poll last month only 5% said ‘yes’ (21 votes), while 95% (367 votes) said ‘no’.
Amaral’s supporters dismiss the McCanns’ claims about the harm the book has caused, but they do not rule out that the British couple could win the case.