Defamation – a serious business

Partner Jeremy Laws

Commercial Litigation Partner Jeremy Laws discusses defamation.

The Defamation Act 2013 introduced a new threshold test of `serious harm’. Section 1(1) of the Act provides that: “A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. The idea is to deter trivial claims, and to avoid litigation where the issues at stake cannot be considered serious.

In Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd & another, Mr Lachaux, a French national living in the United Arab Emirates, brought libel proceedings in respect of various articles published by three British newspaper publishers. The articles alleged that Mr Lachaux had been violent towards his ex-wife and that he had accused her of abducting their son.

Mr Lachaux succeeded with his claim in the High Court, but the newspapers appealed. The main issue in the case was how the new test of serious harm should be interpreted. The High Court and the Court of Appeal differed in their interpretations. Now, the Supreme Court has given definitive guidance.

The main point to note is that the Defamation Act 2013 has introduced a higher threshold than existed before. Anyone bringing a defamation claim will need to prove harm that is serious. Secondly, they cannot simply rely on an inference of harm from the words used, no matter how defamatory they appear to be. The claimant must also demonstrate actual harm.

So words which are obviously defamatory (that is, they are both false and tend to make people think less of the person they refer to ) will not be enough if the claimant has not in fact suffered harm that is considered serious.

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