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Defamation in UK law: a beginner’s guide

Feb 13, 2023 | Uncategorised

2022 was a big year for defamation thanks to Depp v. Heard. While much of the discourse around the live-streamed trial hinged on the #MeToo movement and domestic violence, it centred on a claim of defamation brought by Depp against Heard.

The reason it was a defamation trial was that Depp was trying to protect his reputation, which he and his legal team claimed had been injured by Heard’s claims.

The particulars of defamation law differ between North America – where the Depp/Heard trial took place – and the UK. But the protection of reputation is key to both.

Take the example of JK Rowling. In 2013 she wrote an article about her early days as a writer when she was living as a single mother. The Daily Mail responded with a two-page article entitled “How JK Rowling’s sob story about her single mother past surprised and confused the church members who cared for her”.

Rowling sued. The upshot of the trial was that Rowling was “fully vindicated and her reputation restored”. The harmful words printed about her past were corrected and she could now refer to a public, legally affirmed version of events should the allegations resurface.

In this guide to defamation in the UK, we look at what it is, how cases are brought and what the outcomes can be for individuals and companies.

How does UK law define “defamation”?

In UK law, “defamation” is a blanket term that covers libel and slander. Libel is where defamatory statements have been printed, broadcasted or published online. Slander is where they are made verbally – at a dinner party, say.

The Defamation Act 2013 states that “a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”.

While defamation is often associated with cause célèbres – from Sean Penn to Branjelina – it isn’t the preserve of the celebrity class. But it is by nature a costly last resort after attempts at early resolution have failed.

Defamation claims can be brought by individuals or by companies. In the case of the latter, the claimant needs to prove that the defamatory material has led to significant financial losses.

The claimant doesn’t have to be named in the defamatory statement – they just have to be identifiable.

Can you be defamed on social media?

Yes – defamatory statements published on Twitter, Facebook and the like can cause “serious harm” just as a newspaper article can. Arguably, it can cause more damage than traditional media outlets because a defamatory statement can be reproduced and shared so quickly and with such a global reach.

The complicating factor is that social media posts can be deleted and edited with ease. This is why it can be in the claimant’s interest to take screenshots of offending posts.

Defamation can also be the leaking of private DMs or posts. This was the case in the so-called “Wagatha Christie” trial, in which Coleen Rooney accused Rebekah Vardy of leaking her private Instagram posts to The Sun.

How do you bring a defamation claim?

Defamation claims initially go through the Pre-action Protocol. This is government guidance that sets out the steps parties should take to resolve an issue before initiating court proceedings. It’s there to defuse and resolve through open communication and standardised dispute resolution.

Key to a case for defamation is the so-called “defamatory sting”. This is the part of the statement that’s claimed to be defamatory. The “sting” is whatever was said that will cause “serious harm” to the claimant – and it has to be “serious” in the eyes of the law. This is partly to avoid the courts being swamped with the petty gripes of the rich.

Anybody involved in the publication of defamatory material can be sued – this could be the author, editor, producer, publishing company or website owner.

A defamation suit begins with a Letter of Claim. This sets out:

  • Where the defamatory statement was published
  • What it consisted of
  • How it was inaccurate
  • How it’s likely to cause serious harm to the claimant

What happens next depends on the defendant’s response. They could accept part or all of the claim, ask for more information or reject the claim altogether. Whatever the outcome, the Pre-action Protocol encourages alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to secure an out-of-court settlement. This could be an apology or financial compensation.

If all else fails, the claimant can bring a defamation court claim. In this eventuality, it can be advisable to take legal advice from an experienced defamation solicitor. This can increase your chances of success.

Is there a time limit?

Yes. A claim must be brought within one year of the defamatory statement first being published. This is known as the “limitation period”. This date of first publication is the starting point even if the statement has been re-published since.

How can defamation claims be defended?

If the claim is brought against a journalist, there are three main lines of defence:

  • Truth – the statement is true.
  • “Honest comment” or “honest opinion” – the journalist honestly believed what they wrote and believed it to be in the public interest.
  • Privilege – journalists have the right to report what is said, even if it contains a defamatory sting.

If you’re bringing a claim of defamation against a journalist or media outlet, you might want to consider seeking legal advice to ensure a fair fight.

How are defamation cases settled?

Victims of defamation can receive:

  • Compensation
  • An apology or retraction
  • An injunction to remove defamatory statements and prevent re-publication

It’s not, however, within the court’s power to make the defendant correct the defamatory statement.

Like all court proceedings, defamation trials are costly, time-consuming and stressful. The Pre-action Protocol exists to help individuals and companies explore all other options before ending up in court.

If you do find yourself in a defamation case, it could be worth thinking about legal advice. At Milners Law, we have a team of experienced solicitors who specialise in commercial dispute resolution – including defamation. If you’re looking for guidance, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a free, no-obligation consultation.

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