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Libel and Slander

Libel and slander are both forms of defamation, which involve making a false statement about someone that damages their reputation.

Libel is a defamatory statement that is written. Slander is a defamatory statement that is oral.

In the United Kingdom, the laws around libel and slander are governed by the Defamation Act 2013 which replaced the previous common law rules on defamation.

Defamation Act 2013

The Defamation Act 2013 defines defamation as a statement that “causes or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. It also sets out the criteria for what constitutes a defamatory statement, including whether the statement would lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society or whether it would cause the claimant to be shunned or avoided.

Under the Defamation Act 2013, a claimant has to show that the statement was published to a third party and that it referred to them directly or indirectly. The statement must also be shown to be false, unless it is a statement of opinion, in which case the defence of honest opinion may be used.

One of the key changes introduced by the Defamation Act 2013 was the introduction of a new defence of “truth”. If a defendant can prove that the statement is true, they will not be liable for defamation. The Act also introduced a defence of “honest opinion”, which can be used if the statement was a genuine expression of opinion, based on true facts, and was not malicious.

Another important change introduced by the Defamation Act 2013 was the requirement for claimants to show that they had suffered “serious harm” as a result of the defamatory statement. This was intended to prevent trivial claims from clogging up the courts and to ensure that claimants only pursued cases where there was a genuine loss.

Defamation

The role of solicitors and barristers in defamation cases is crucial. A solicitor will typically be the first point of contact for a potential claimant, and will assess the strength of their case and advise on whether it is worth pursuing. They will also be responsible for drafting the claim form and other legal documents, and for liaising with the defendant’s legal team.

The law says that the victim of libel or slander has just 12 months from the date of publication of the libellous or slanderous statement to start Court proceedings. The 12 month time limit can be varied in some circumstances.

Once the claim has been filed, the case will usually be heard in the High Court, although smaller cases may be heard in the County Court. In some cases, the parties may be able to reach a settlement before the case goes to court, but if the case proceeds to trial, a barrister will typically be instructed to represent the claimant.

Barristers are specialist advocates who are trained in the law and court procedure. They will provide advice on the strength of the case, draft legal arguments and represent the claimant in court. Barristers will also cross-examine witnesses and make closing submissions to the judge or jury.

Defendants in defamation cases will also typically be represented by a solicitor and barrister. Their role will be to defend the claim and argue that the statement was not defamatory, or that a defence applies. The defendant may also bring a counter-claim if they believe that the claimant has defamed them.

One important aspect of defamation law in the UK is the ability to apply for an injunction to prevent the publication of defamatory material. This is known as a “gagging order” and can be used to prevent a defendant from publishing further defamatory material, or to prevent the publication of material that has already been produced.

The role of the court in defamation cases is to balance the right to freedom of expression against the right to protect one’s reputation. The court will consider a range of factors, including the seriousness of the defamatory statement, the context in which it was made, the audience it was intended for, and whether the statement was made in the public interest.

Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) is an important piece of legislation in the UK that incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law. The HRA has had a significant impact on defamation law in the UK, particularly in relation to the right to freedom of expression.

Under the HRA, individuals have the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas. However, this right is not absolute, and can be subject to restrictions that are necessary in a democratic society.

In defamation cases, the HRA has been used to strike a balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to protect one’s reputation. The courts have recognised that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but have also recognised that defamatory statements can have a serious impact on an individual’s reputation and can restrict their right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the ECHR.

In some cases, the HRA has been used to strengthen the defences available to defendants in defamation cases. For example, in the case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd [1999], the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) developed a new defence of “responsible journalism” based on the right to freedom of expression under the HRA. The defence applies where a publication is on a matter of public interest, the publisher has taken reasonable steps to verify the information, and the publication is in the public interest.

Similarly, in the case of Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe SPRL [2006], the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) held that the right to freedom of expression under the HRA required a high threshold for proving “serious harm” in defamation cases, and that a claimant must show that the publication had caused or was likely to cause “serious harm” to their reputation.

The HRA has also had an impact on the remedies available in defamation cases. Under Article 10 of the ECHR, individuals have the right to seek a remedy for a violation of their right to freedom of expression. This means that claimants in defamation cases can seek a range of remedies, including damages, injunctions, and apologies.

The Human Rights Act has had a significant impact on defamation law in the UK, particularly in relation to the right to freedom of expression.

The Act has been used to strike a balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to protect one’s reputation, and has led to the development of new defences and a high threshold for proving “serious harm”.

The Act has also had an impact on the remedies available in defamation cases, and has reinforced the importance of the right to seek a remedy for a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Summary

The law around libel and slander in the UK is complex, but is governed by the Defamation Act 2013. The Act introduced important changes, including a requirement for claimants to show “serious harm”, new defences of “truth” and “honest opinion”, and the ability to apply for an injunction to prevent the publication of defamatory material.

It is worth noting that the internet and social media have had a significant impact on defamation law in recent years.

Online platforms have made it easier for defamatory material to be published and shared, and have made it more difficult for individuals to protect their reputation.

However, the same principles of defamation law apply online as they do offline, and individuals can still take legal action to protect their reputation.

In addition, the Defamation Act 2013 introduced new provisions to address the issue of online defamation.

These include a new defence of publication on a matter of public interest, which can be used if the statement was published in the public interest and the defendant reasonably believed it to be true.

Overall, libel and slander remain important areas of law in the UK, and individuals and organisations need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to protecting their reputation or defending against defamatory statements.

The gov.uk website has various help and guidance on Crime, justice and the law.

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By Dom Watts

Dom Watts founded the Ministry of Injustice in July 2021. Dom works in IT and has no legal training and is not a lawyer. You can find Dom on X or Google.

Dom publishes the Ministry of Injustice as a citizen journalist. The journalism exemption is detailed in the Data protection and journalism code of practice published by the ICO and Section 124 of the Data Protection Act 2018.

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