This Court of Appeal case saw the separation of the meaning from the 'sting' of a defamatory statement, creating a new angle from which to look at the justification or 'truth' defence.
Danny Simpson brought proceedings against MGN Limited for an article published on the Daily Mirror's website. The article alleged that Mr Simpson's relationship with Tulisa Contostavlos had broken up his family life with Stephanie Ward (who was pregnant with his child at the time). Mr Simpson sued for defamation and MGN defended the claim on the basis of justification (what is now known as the 'truth' defence under the Defamation Act 2013).
Meaning of the words complained of
The judge determined as a preliminary issue that the meaning of the article was that Mr Simpson had been unfaithful to Ms Ward, despite being in "a long-term and committed relationship" with her, and that Ms Ward had "sacrificed her legal career to have his children". Mr Simpson therefore "broke up an established family unit which was soon to be joined by the child they were expecting" (para 24).
The judge then struck out MGN's plea of justification, on the basis that MGN could not prove that Ms Ward "gave up a legal career" for Mr Simpson or that they were an "established family unit'. According to the judge, these two allegations were essential to the 'defamatory sting' of the article and without being able to prove them, MGN could not defend the article. MGN appealed the ruling.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal disagreed with the preliminary issue judge's decision to strike out MGN's defence. According to the Court of Appeal, the 'defamatory sting' of the article was not necessarily dependent on the two allegations he had singled out. Instead, according to the Court of Appeal, it is the defendant's task, "to raise arguments as to the intensity of the libel's sting." The Court also acknowledged that "in some instances the meaning of words and their defamatory sting (and its intensity) ineluctably go together, but not always."
The Court's decision to separate meaning from defamatory sting is an interesting development, suggesting you cannot simply rely on meaning to show a statement is defamatory. Claimants may have to overcome the additional hurdle of distinguishing the statement's 'sting'. As a result, courts are likely to be more cautious when striking out a truth or justification defence, as defendants need only prove the 'sting' of statement was justified, rather than proving the entirety of the words complained of.
If you require further information on anything covered in this briefing please contact Alicia Mendonca ([email protected], 020 3375 7201) or your usual contact at the firm on 020 3375 7000. Further information can also be found on the Defamation and Reputation Management page on our website.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, September 2016