Libel Claims – prove ‘serious harm’ to reputation, says court

In a case relating to a French engineer’s case against The Evening Standard and The Independent, the Court held that claimants will have to prove they have suffered “serious harm” to their reputation if they want to bring a libel case in the UK.

 The Supreme Court In June 2019  ruled against the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers in a libel case involving engineer Bruno Lachaux over articles published in 2014 about his marriage breakdown and concluded that the articles did cause him “serious harm”.

In a move which will be seen as positive for media publishers, the ruling however clarified that the 2013 Defamation Act was a significant change to the law and effectively introduced an “additional test” to those wanting to pursue a claim.

It means that in future claimants must produce evidence that actual serious harm has been caused to an individual’s reputation.

It also confirms that for profit-making entities to sue they have to show the harm caused serious financial loss.

Judges will, however, still decide each case on its facts.

As part of the Lachaux appeal, the court had been asked to interpret the “serious harm” test contained in the 2013 legislation, which came into force in early 2014, and was designed to reduce the number of vexatious and trivial libel claims brought against publishers.

However, lawyers say there has been a lack of clarity about what constitutes serious harm as different courts have tried to interpret the legislation.

The uncertainty comes as defamation claims filed in London increased 70 per cent in 2018, rising from 156 in 2017 to 265 in 2018.

Caroline Kean, partner at media law firm Wiggin, said the Supreme Court ruling would make it more difficult to bring a claim. “The balance has now swung back away from the claimants in favour of the defendants.

This is a very real victory for the media,” she said. “The Supreme Court has confirmed that the 2013 Defamation Act was intended to stop claimants bringing fatuous claims.”

In his ruling, Lord Sumption said that the 2013 legislation did “introduce a new threshold of serious harm which did not previously exist”.

A spokesman for ESI Media, which publishes both the Independent and the Evening Standard, said the company welcomed the decision. “The courts will now need to consider a higher threshold for libel claims and look at the actual impact a publication has on a claimant,” it said. 

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