A Stewarts client has achieved a successful outcome at trial in a long-running libel claim. Our client, a businessman and philanthropist, brought the claim against his sister-in-law in 2017. This followed her publication of defamatory statements, including allegations of criminality and dishonesty to 34 members of his extended family via WhatsApp.

After a lengthy dispute, our client has been awarded the maximum £50,000 in damages sought and an injunction preventing the defendant from repeating the same or similar allegations in the future. Emily Cox and Palomi Kotecha review the case here.

 

Background

The defamation claim stemmed from a bitter property dispute between the claimant and the defendant, her husband and son. The defendant and her family ultimately discontinued their claims after trial but before judgment. Following their discontinuance, the defendant published defamatory statements on WhatsApp to 34 family members around the world, including assertions that the claimant had committed perjury in the property case and had robbed his brother’s house, also doubting his faith in vitriolic terms. She refused to undertake not to repeat her allegations, so the claimant commenced the libel claim.

As the defendant failed to file a defence in response, the claimant was awarded a default judgment in June 2018. The judge held that the defendant’s messages were seriously defamatory, such that they met the threshold of “serious harm” under section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013.

The default judgment was, however, set aside by consent in October 2018 on the basis that the defendant claimed she had not been aware of the claim as her son had destroyed all documents served. The defendant attempted to strike out the claimant’s claim in 2019, but this application was dismissed. The defendant declared herself bankrupt to avoid paying the claimant his costs of this failed application and disinstructed her solicitors, continuing as a litigant in person.

In June 2021, the defendant applied to amend her previous defence substantially. Her application was dismissed, and she was ordered to pay the claimant’s costs. She failed to do so. The claimant then applied for an ‘unless order’, by which her defence would be struck out and judgment entered for the claimant unless she paid the claimant’s costs within 14 days. Based on her failure to comply, her defence was struck out, and judgment was entered for the claimant in February 2022. A remedies only trial was listed for March 2022.

 

Remedies

The defendant repeatedly refused to entertain resolving the claim on the basis of undertakings only. She was unrepentant and continued to repeat her statements both in correspondence and in hearings. The remedies the claimant therefore sought were:

  • An injunction to restrain repetition of the defamatory statements;
  • An award of damages;
  • An order that the defendant publish a summary of the court’s judgment, pursuant to section 12 of the Defamation Act 2013, through the same WhatsApp channels as the original statements were made; and
  • Costs.

Following the hearing of evidence at the remedies trial, the judge considered there was a significant risk the defendant would continue to repeat the defamatory statements, not least given her outbursts during the remedies trial itself, and, therefore, an injunction was entirely appropriate. He acknowledged the importance attached to monetary awards as a way of “vindicating” the claimant, as well as compensating him. He held that an award of £50,000 was fitting in the circumstances taking into account the seriously defamatory nature of the statements. The judge did not consider that an order that the defendant publish a summary of the court’s judgment was necessary, as the claimant could himself direct interested parties to the court’s judgment and the monetary award.

The judge awarded the claimant £50,000 for the costs of the remedies trial, as well as £100,000 by way of payment on account of the costs of the proceedings as a whole (which would be subject to detailed assessment by the court if not agreed).

 

Commentary

This case is a stark reminder of how emotions can run high in defamation cases, particularly those involving family members or previously close relationships. It should also serve as a warning to those who may think they are free to publish defamatory statements on WhatsApp or social media with a limited audience, as this will not meet the “serious harm” test.

The judge was clear that defamatory statements to a small but important audience can be more devastating than those made to a larger uninvolved audience. He also considered there had been a “grapevine effect” in this case, such that the statement was forwarded on (so easily done on WhatsApp) and/or repeated to many others.

Finally, the damages in this case are substantial, and the judge did not hesitate in awarding the £50,000 sought. This is consistent with a modest rise in the level of quantum awards in defamation claims over the last 10 years. Publisher beware.

 


 

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