Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2015]

In Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2015] EWHC 915 (QB) the Claimant brought libel actions before the court against three newspapers, the Defendants, namely:

(a) The Independent, in respect of their printed story and online
(b) The London Evening Standard, in respect of their printed story and online
(c) AOL (UK) Ltd, the Huffington Post UK, in respect of their online story only.

The stories published by each Defendant were almost identical to each other in that they all alleged the Claimant became violent towards his ex-wife just after their marriage, causing her to leave with her small son and go into hiding whilst they were living in Dubai where he was working. The Claimant argued that the accusations made were defamatory of him under s.1. of the Defamation Act 2013.

The stories printed by the Newspapers had appeared on the 20th January 2014, 24th January 2014 and 10th February 2014. The Claimant’s Solicitors were instructed on the 27th February 2014 but the letter of claim was not sent out until the 28th August 2014 in respect of AOL, 22nd September 2014 in respect of the Independent and 23rd September 2014, the Evening Standard. The Defendants were very unhappy about the delay, in particular because the Claimant had complained of serious harm to his reputation for as long as the stories appeared on their websites.

In accordance with CPR 3.1 the Defendants issued application notices at the court for a trial of the preliminary issues.

The preliminary issues raised by AOL questioned whether the publication caused serious harm to the Claimant’s reputation under s.1 of the Defamation Act 2013, was the Claimant’s claim an abuse of the courts process as in Jameel and further the Claimants own application for trial of a preliminary issue in respect of meaning given in his particulars of claim, should be joined with the trial of their two issues.

The Independent and Evening Standard’s applications for preliminary issues questioned whether the publication referred to in the Claimants particulars of claim was likely to cause serious harm to his reputation under s.1. of the Defamation Act 2013 and whether the publication had been acknowledged as referring to him.

Mrs Justice Davies made reference to the judgment of Mr Justice Warby in the case of Ames v The Spamhaus Project Ltd when on the 27th January 2015 he gave directions as to the procedures to use in deciding the issue of serious harm.

In Cooke v MGN Limited, Mr Justice Bean defined the meaning of serious harm, s.1. of the Defamation Act 2013, as a preliminary issue. He noted that the harm had to be serious not just considerable, it was not merely enough to show great distress or any injury to feelings, the harm to the Claimant’s reputation had happened or was likely to happen.

Mrs Justice Davies considered what Mr Justice Warby had said with regard to the issue of Jameel abuse where he observed whether a “a real and substantial tort” had occurred within the jurisdiction of the court and which, in an application to strike out as an abuse, had been referred to as a “threshold criterion”.

The Defendant’s argument was that their applications fell within Mr Justice Warby’s guidance in the case of Ames v The Spamhaus Project Ltd in respect of the procedures in deciding serious harm and that they should be tried together as preliminary issues with the issue in the AOL application as to meaning.

Lady Justice Davies in her conclusions made reference to the length of time taken by the Claimant to issue his letters of claim against the three Defendants. She further observed how the issues of identification, serious harm together with real and substantial tort were all joined together:

(a) The Claimant must be identified for him to be caused serious harm
(b) Without serious harm being established there is no real or substantial tort and
(c) Matters which are material to the establishment of serious harm such as the description of him in the particulars of claim, his connections in the UK and other relevant circumstances

She further observed that to enable her to come to a decision, then the claims should proceed. There must be established very quickly the issues of serious harm, reference and an abuse of process as in Jameel, in conjunction with the Defamation Act, in order that the issues are dealt with and decided upon early which would inevitably save time and money. She did not agree with the Claimant who contended that this course of action did not take into account costs budgets, that there should be further pleadings and a case management hearing which Lady Justice Davies considered went against what the overall intentions and aims were.

Lady Justice Davies concluded that the applications fell within the Ames case and the guidance given by Mr Justice Warby in that case which was that it was better to deal with the issues of serious harm or abuse of process as preliminary issues so that any arguments as to meaning can be dealt with and determined together. She accordingly granted the Defendants applications.

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