Anna Turley v Unite the Union and Stephen Walker

Reference: [2019] EWHC 3547 (QB)

Court: High Court (QBD)

Judge: Nicklin J

Date of judgment: 19 Dec 2019

Summary: Libel – Trial – Liability for publication – Serious harm – Truth – Public interest – Assessment of damages – CPR Part 36

Download: Download this judgment

Appearances: Kate Wilson (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Hamlins LLP for the Claimant


The Claimant was the Labour MP for Redcar. She sued Unite the Union and the editor of a blog, The Skwawkbox, for libel in respect of an article which had been published on the blog on 7 April 2017.

The Article reported that the Claimant had joined the ‘Community’ section of the union to vote against the incumbent General Secretary, Len McCluskey. It stated that in order to join she made a “false declaration” that she was “unwaged”.

Prior to publication, The Skwawkbox had contacted the union for a ‘for publication’ comment. Unite’s Director of Campaigns and Communications provided a statement (“the Press Statement”) which was subsequently included, verbatim, in the Article in the following terms: ‘A Unite spokesperson today confirmed that there exists no exemption for an MP to join [Unite Community] and issued the following statement: “Unite welcomes new members but anyone joining on a fraudulent basis will prompt an investigation. A complaint has been received and is being investigated.”

The Article conveyed a Chase level 2 meaning, in essence, that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the Claimant of dishonesty in joining the Community section of the union.

The parties had previously agreed the meaning of the Article. The trial of the claim took place over 6 days before Nicklin J. He gave judgment for the Claimant and awarded her £75,000 in general and aggravated damages. He also made an order under s.12 of the 2013 Act.

The damages award meant that the Claimant had beaten her Part 36 Offer, made in July 2018. Following judgment, the parties agreed that CPR r.36.17(4)(b)-(d) should take effect. Therefore, amongst other things, the Claimant was awarded an additional sum of £7,500.


1.  Was Unite liable as a publisher of the Article, whether because it supplied the Second Defendant with the information for it or because of the provision of the Press Statement?

2.  Had the Claimant satisfied s.1 of the 2013 Act (‘the serious harm requirement’)? If so,

3.  Was the imputation conveyed by the Article substantially true?

4.  Did the Defendants have a public interest defence under s.4 of the 2013 Act?

5.  Was the Claimant ‘dishonest’ in the conduct of the litigation and, if so, should the claim be dismissed as an abuse of process, or any remedies to which she would otherwise be entitled, be refused? If not,

6.  If successful in her claim what sum in damages and what other remedies should be awarded?


The Judge found that Unite was liable as a publisher of the Article because of its provision of the Press Statement.

The Press Statement, by itself, conveyed a seriously defamatory meaning about the Claimant. It referred to ‘fraud’ in unambiguous terms.

Unite’s Director of Campaigns and Communications gave the Press Statement knowing the broad gist of the article which The Skwawkbox intended to publish about the Claimant and the information about her membership which it would contain. The Judge found that the wording of Unite’s ‘for publication’ statement was “the equivalent of throwing a substantial quantity of fuel over a very small fire”.

The Judge rejected the Claimant’s alternative basis for Unite’s liability as publisher of the Article, namely the provision of information about Ms Turley’s application for membership.

The Claimant had established that the publication caused serious harm to her reputation: the allegation was serious; there was evidence of adverse reactions from some readers who had posted comments on social media; and evidence of re-publication online.

The Judge rejected the Defendants’ argument that, because the readership of the blog would have been partisan and hostile to the Claimant, the Article would not have caused serious harm to her reputation. There was no real evidence as to the readership’s views, but the Judge was also sceptical as to the logic of the proposition (para 114(iii)).

The Judge rejected the defences of truth and publication on a matter of public interest.

The circumstances in which the Claimant submitted her application to join the union, the contents of the application form which she completed (which did not include eligibility criteria), and her reaction when she was told 3 months later that she was not eligible to be in the Community section of Unite (which was to apologise and ask for her membership to be transferred to another section) were amongst the factors which led the Judge to reject the Defendants’ case that she was dishonest in any way when she submitted her membership application.

The Article was on a matter of public interest, so s.4(1)(a) was satisfied. However, there was no evidence that anyone at Unite held a belief that publication was in the public interest, and, although the Second Defendant did, subjectively, believe that publication was in the public interest, that belief was not reasonable. The Second Defendant had failed to take sufficient steps to support an important (but inaccurate) assertion in the Article that the Claimant had made a ‘false declaration’ when submitting her membership application. He had also not given her an adequate opportunity to respond prior to publication. The Defendants therefore failed to satisfy s.4(1)(b).

The Judge rejected the Defendants’ allegations that the Claimant was dishonest in her conduct of the litigation.

The damages award of £75,000 was a single award of general and aggravated damages. Although the meaning was only a Chase level 2 meaning (grounds to suspect), it was a serious allegation because it concerned the Claimant’s honesty and integrity. The Judge found that the Defendants’ conduct during the trial had “seriously aggravated the harm to the Claimant’s reputation and her distress”. The additional allegations made during the trial (of dishonesty and that the Claimant was ‘unfit’ to be an MP) also made “the vindicatory function of damages particularly important”.


For libel practitioners, the judgment is of most interest in the application of sections 1 and 4 of the 2013 Act, both of which have been the subject of higher court decisions earlier this year, namely the Supreme Court’s decision on s.1 in Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2019] UKSC 27 and the Court of Appeal’s decision on s.4 in Serafin v Malkiewicz [2019] EWCA Civ 852.

While obiter, the Judge’s observations about the operation of the s.4 defence where there are two or more defendants are also of interest (para 140). The Judge observed that the language of s.4 appears to require each defendant to establish independently his reasonable belief that publication was in the public interest, but he commented that it was ‘not hard to imagine’ circumstances, for example in commercial publishing, where someone liable as a publisher would not, independently, have turned his or her mind to that question.