Owens & Anor v Grose & Anor [2015]

Owens & Anor v Grose & Anor [2015] EWHC 839 (QB) (27 March 2015) was an Appeal from a judgment by Master Kay dated 10th December 2014 where he dismissed applications to strike out or grant reverse summary judgment in relation to the Claimant’s claim for damages, including aggravated damages, for defamation in relation to statements made in a letter of the 21st September 2013 and an injunction.

The Defendants in the appeal argued that the Claimant’s claim should be struck out and or dismissed and the Claimants in the appeal argued they should have their costs.

The case concerned a property in Hampshire which the Defendants had let out to the Claimants on a six month tenancy through letting agents. The Claimants paid a deposit of £1,575 under the tenancy agreement, held by the letting agents as stakeholders under the tenants deposit scheme. In the tenancy agreement there was provision for dispute resolution by a firm called DSL regarding the deposit.

The tenancy agreement included a condition as to the Claimants’ animals, a cat and two dogs, allowing them to keep the pets at the property conditional upon the carpets and furnishings being professionally cleaned when the tenancy expired. Further provision was made in the tenancy agreement for the Claimants to be able to use the garage at the front of the property.

When the tenancy expired a disagreement arose between the parties regarding the deposit. An inventory had been prepared at the expiration of the tenancy in August 2013 and on the 27th August 2013 one of the Defendants sent an email of complaint to the letting agent regarding the deposit and copied the email to another member of their staff. She said there were dog scratches on the door and there was no evidence that the carpets and furnishings had been professionally cleaned. A member of staff at the letting agency forwarded the email on the 30th August 2013 to the Claimants.

On the 5th September 2013, a senior member of staff at the letting agency emailed the Landlord Defendants that the price of a new door would cost £100 and they had not received a response in respect of the cleaning bill from the Claimants.

The Claimants sent a reply by email of the 10th September 2013 to the letting agency enclosing an invoice for the carpet cleaning with a note that the carpet cleaner had said that the other carpets did not need cleaning. The Claimants had complained at the outset of the tenancy as to the property condition and about the garage access being blocked. They asked that a sum of £500 be paid to them citing that the Defendants, were not permitted to use the garage. Other complaints had been made about the bathroom and oven. The email letter ended with the Claimants threatening legal action if the deposit was not paid back to them.

One of the managers of the letting agency responded by letter of the 12th September 2013 with a proposal to deduct £100 for the door plus vat and requesting that the Claimants send them the invoice from the cleaning company. On the 16th September 2013 the manager wrote to the Defendants asking how they wanted to reply to the Claimants letter of the 10th September 2013.

The Defendants responded on the 21st September 2013 complaining about various aspects of the Claimants tenancy, detailing the matters in contention and making reference to the work being charged to the Claimants Company and how HMRC might view this. The letter was forwarded to DSL by the letting agents to use in the dispute procedure.

The Claimants issued their claim on the 23rd April 2014 for libel with their particulars of claim annexed referring to the publication of the Defendant’s letter of the 21st September 2013 and the defamatory meanings:

“(a) the Claimants were bad tenants; (b) the Claimants had fabricated dishonest objections to the Defendants’ dilapidations claim with the intention of avoiding liability; (c) the Claimants failed to care for their pets; (d) the First Claimant had illegally used the sources of his company to pay for personal expenses; and (e) the First Claimant, as a prominent local managing agents, was a hypocrite because he did not comply with standards of good behaviour by tenants.”

The Defendants made an application to strike out on the 9th September 2014 or for reverse summary saying they were not responsible for publication of the letter to DSL, which was qualified privilege and was an abuse of process as in re Jameel.

Mr Justice Dingemans considered the legal principles, in particular, Jameel abuse of process, qualified privilege and malice.

The test applied in Jameel was had there been “a real and substantial tort”. Had there been publication and who had an interest in receiving that publication, which would be a matter of qualified privilege.

Mr Justice Dingemans observed that the publication to letting agents, who also held the deposit as stakeholders, was a matter of qualified privilege but the defamatory imputations made in the letter of the 21st September 2013 as to the Defendants and reference to the HMRC, all fell outside the realm of qualified privilege. He concluded there was no evidence that he would need to give consideration to in respect of the issue of malice, therefore, the qualified privilege defence must be successful.

Mr Justice Dingemans dismissed the Claimant’s claims concluding that the publication of the letter of 21st September 2013 to the letting agents and the dispute resolution company were partly qualified privilege. He noted that reverse summary judgment should therefore have been granted to the Defendants and allowed appeals in respect of the order of Master Kay QC. He recorded that no plea of justification was put forward relating to the claims made in the letter of 21st September 2013.

Suite 205/206 Cotton Exchange
Bixteth Street, Liverpool L3 9LQ

T — 0151 541 2040
T — 0203 846 2862