Full case report
RBOS Shareholders Action Group Ltd v News Group Newspapers Ltd
Reference  EWHC 130 (QB)
Court High Court (QBD)
Judge Tugendhat J
Date of Judgment 4 Feb 2014
Defamation – Meaning – Preliminary Ruling
The Claimant company (C) was a shareholders’ action group. Its members were Royal Bank of Scotland shareholders who had subscribed for shares in the rights issue which took place in 2008 and who, with C’s assistance, were bringing a legal claim against RBOS and its directors.
On 12 May 2013, the Scottish Sun, published by D1, ran a story headlined ‘Murky past exposed of man behind fight for RBS investors’. Much of the article concerned C’s founder and former director (GW), his history and his role in C. C issued a libel claim in respect of both the hard copy and online versions of the article against D1 and its Scottish Home Affairs Editor, D2. Ds sought an extension of time for serving their Defence and stated an intention to apply for an order that the claim be struck out as an abuse of process (relying on Jameel (Yousef) v Dow Jones  QB 946) and/or for summary judgment under CPR Part 24.
C applied for a preliminary issue on meaning, contending that the article meant that it was highly likely, or at least strongly to be suspected, that it (C) was being controlled and used for fraudulent purposes by GW. At the time of this application, the extension of time for service of the Defence had not yet expired.
Ds accepted at the hearing that they would not be seeking a trial by jury and therefore that the action would be tried by judge alone. No application for strike out had been made by the time of the hearing. They opposed the preliminary issue, arguing that it was premature and should be heard, if at all, at the same time as their application. They disputed that the article bore any meaning defamatory of C; alternatively they contended that it bore a much lower meaning which did not surmount the threshold of seriousness.
(1) Whether a preliminary issue on meaning should be ordered; and,
(2) If so, whether the words complained of bore the defamatory meaning attributed to them by C.
(1) Granting the application and ordering the preliminary issue sought:
(a) The circumstances of this case, and perhaps most cases, required the court to determine the meaning of the words complained of for the purpose, amongst others, of establishing the level of gravity. This was to be done without evidence. A distinction had to be drawn between the level of seriousness or gravity of a meaning (which largely depends on the words complained of and the identity of the claimant) and the seriousness of a libel (which embraces additional factors, such as extent of the publication and the identity of the publishee(s) or their relationship to the claimant).
(b) The mere fact that a defendant intimates that it is proposing to apply to strike out should not of itself preclude the court from determining the level of gravity of the allegation as it would appear to the hypothetical reasonable reader knowing only what is written and what is common knowledge.
(2) Bearing in mind the principles governing a meaning application set out in Jeynes v News Magazines Limited  EWCA Civ 130 at , the words complained of were defamatory of C:
(a) In their natural and ordinary meaning, the words complained of meant and were understood to mean that it was strongly to be suspected that C was being controlled and used by GW as a conduit for the fraudulent misappropriation of funds contributed by its members for his own personal benefit.
(b) The portrayal of C as a victim did not preclude the finding that the allegation was defamatory of C. The meaning had a tendency to deter third parties from dealing with, or being associated with C, Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd  AC 534 at 547.
Another decision reflecting the increasing willingness of the Courts to decide meaning as a preliminary issue, pursuant to the overriding objective to try cases justly and at proportionate costs. Particularly notable is the Judge’s concern to prevent trials of meaning getting bogged down with Jameel-related issues: he held that if the inherent gravity of an allegation fell to be determined only as part of the larger investigation and balancing of rights under Article 10 and (where applicable) Article 8, then much of the benefit of an early determination of meaning (in terms of speed and costs) would be lost.
Hamlins LLP for the Claimant, RPC for the Defendants
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