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Application for a Ruling on Meaning.

March 30, 2012

Church v MGN Ltd [2012] EWHC 693 (QB)

An application for a ruling on meaning can shorten the litigation process and reduce costs. This is usually the most hard fought and time consuming part of any action so if the parties can’t agree, then such an application determined by a judge and not jury can either lead to the case being dismissed or settled much earlier.

An application was made for a ruling in this case on meaning of the words complained pursuant to Practice Direction 53 Paragraph 4.1.  The claim itself revolved around an article in The People newspaper of 6 November 2011. The article detailed the following:-

“MARRYOKE Exclusive

Charlotte proposes after pub karaoke session

Charlotte Church has proposed to her boyfriend Jonathan Powell during a boozy pub karaoke night.

The star belted out The Ronnettes’ Be My Baby then slumped in a chair next to her man and gave him a huge kiss. She told him: “That was for you because I want you to be my baby. Will you marry me? ”

He replied: “Yes but I don’t want to be known as Mr Church”.

The pair, both 25, then ordered bottles of champagne “one each” and celebrated into the early hours of last Saturday morning at the pub, the Robin Hood in Cardiff.

A friend said: “Jonathan was thrilled and Charlotte was very happy. She was singing I’m Getting Married in the Morning as we helped her to the taxi afterward.”

Jonathan, a song-writer yet to find success, first met Charlotte in the pub which her aunt owns.

The couple have been dating for more than a year. She has children Ruby, 4 and Dexter 3, by rugby star Gavin Henson, 29 who she split from in May 2010″.

The article had with it a picture of the couple but it had been taken at a different time.

In fact Ms Church had been singing at another gig that night. The couple in the picture wasn’t Ms Chuch and her boyfriend.

Proceedings were issued on 14 December 2011.

The Particulars of Claim included the following:-

  • “In there natural and/or ordinary inferential meaning the words complained of meant and were understood to mean that the Claimant made an embarrassingly drunken spectacle of herself as she proposed to her boyfriend whilst singing karaoke in the Robin Hood pub in Cardiff in the early hours of Saturday, 29 October 2011”.

The paper fully accepted that the story was untrue, that the singer and her boyfriend were five miles away in a different town giving a concert that night and published an apology.

However MGN applied to have the libel action struck out on the grounds that to make

  • “a marriage proposal to their long-term partner cannot be defamatory and the fact that this is said to have been done in public cannot change that”.

The Defendant made an application to the court on the meaning of those words claiming that they weren’t defamatory.

Pursuant to Practice Direction 53 at Paragraph 4.1:-

 “At any time the Court may decide:-

1. Whether the statement is capable of having any meaning attributed to it in a Statement of Case.

2. Whether the statement is capable of being defamatory of the Claimant.

3. Whether the statement is capable of bearing any other meaning defamatory of the Claimant”

The People made their application

1. “A ruling that the words complained of by the Claimant are not capable of defaming her in the meaning of which she complains in the Particulars of Claim or any other meaning which she might complain.

2. An Order the claim be dismissed accordingly.

Because the Defendant believes that the words complained of are incapable of bearing the alleged or any defamatory meaning about the Claimant”.

The Judge outlined the test to be applied which was the guidance given in Skuse v Granada Television.

The court should give the article the natural and ordinary meaning it would have conveyed to the ordinary reasonable reader, reading the article once. The ordinary, reasonable reader is not naive; he can read between the lines. But he is not unduly suspicious. He is not looking for scandal. He would not select one bad meaning where other, non-defamatory meanings are available. The court must read the article as a whole, and ignore over-elaborate analysis and, also, too literal an approach. The intention of the publisher is not relevant.

The Judge found that the words complained of were defamatory dependant upon the context in which they appeared.  It was his Judgment that the words complained of were capable of bearing the meaning that Miss Church had attributed to them in the Particulars of Claim.  He also stated that although the behaviour might not be considered defamatory to some people, in the case of the Claimant, such drunken behaviour was capable of defaming her.

The papers application failed and the case now proceeds to trial although having regards to this ruling it is likely to be settled.