Caven blog

Lord Rennard – sorry is the hardest word

The Liberal Democrats are gripped in turmoil following sexual harassment allegations against Lord Rennard, a central figure in the party.

It’s a situation which has polarised opinion around the country, and raised an interesting question regarding whether an apology equates to an admission of guilt.

Who is Lord Rennard, and what happened?

Lord Rennard is renowned in Westminster for his role in overseeing a series of impressive election results between 1989 and 2009. He was made a Life Peer in 1999.

Last year four party activists accused the peer of historic acts of sexual harassment, involving inappropriate touching and unwanted sexual advances. This lead to him resigning the party whip (i.e. ceasing to represent the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords) while the claims were investigated.

The report into the allegations by Alistair Webster QC concluded that were “broadly credible” but could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It advised that Lord Rennard should apologise to the women concerned; which he has refused to do.

The call for an apology

This has caused embarrassment for Nick Clegg, who had insisted that Lord Rennard apologise as a matter of “basic decency”.  The party has been plunged into conflict with some members jumping to his defence while others demand an apology.

While Lord Rennard maintains he has has done nothing wrong, he also claimed “any apology would leave me defenceless in a future civil action”. It is a common belief that an apology equals legal liability, but how much truth does this have?

Can an apology be linked to liability?

Civil courts must make a decision on liability based on a balance of probabilities using the evidence available.  Under the Compensation Act 2006, apologising for an accident is not in itself sufficient to show liability. In other kinds of case, the significance of an apology will depend on its wording and the general circumstances.

In practice we very often say sorry for being the innocent cause of someone being upset. Even if we accept some wrongdoing in apologising, this does not necessarily mean we admit to behaviour that would meet the legal definition of the civil wrong in question, be it sexual harassment, assault etc.

On the other hand, many people faced with potential civil liability avoid apologising whatsoever. Understandably, they fear that the wrong choice of words or the mere fact of apologising might tip the balance against them in a courtroom.

An apology can have enormous power to assuage hurt feelings and encourage forgiveness. Indeed, the Compensation Act 2006 aimed to reduce claims for medical negligence by encouraging doctors to apologise to patients.

So it is unfortunate that fear of litigation stops people saying sorry. However, without explicit assurance that an apology will not open them to being sued it is not surprising that many people prefer to convoluted expressions of “regret” or to remain silent.

None of which, of course, helps the women in this case.


For more information on civil litigation, visit our specific civil litigation information page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Please click to generate a password and get around our spam filter.

HTML tags are not allowed.

Quick enquiry form