Crossland v Wilkinson Hardware Stores Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 481 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 23 Mar 2005
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Slander - Malicious Falsehood - Malice - Qualified Privilege - Harassment - Summary Judgment - Part 24
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Alexandra Marzec (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Browne Jacobson LLP for the Defendant
The Claimant was a former manager of one of the Defendant’s hardware stores. He left upon agreed terms. Shortly afterwards, he brought proceedings in the Employment Tribunal claiming unfair dismissal (these proceedings were ultimately dismissed). He also sued the Defendant for libel based on words published about him in a report compiled by 2 of the Defendant’s managers as to the working of the store of which the Claimant was manager; for slander based on words spoken in disciplinary interviews; for malicious falsehood (basing his claim on the same words as those complained of in the defamation claims); and for harassment, claiming he had been forced to sign the compromise agreement agreeing the terms of his departure from the Defendant.
(1) Should there be summary judgment for the Defendant on the defamation and malicious falsehood claims on the grounds that the defence of qualified privilege was bound to succeed and the plea of malice was bound to fail?
(2) In relation to defamation and malicious falsehood claims, was the defence of consent bound to succeed?
(3) Was the harassment claim bound to fail?
(4) Was the claim an abuse of process?
(1) The publications complained of were clearly privileged and the Claimant had no real prospect of proving malice against the Defendant. Therefore summary judgment was granted against the Claimant on these claims.
(2) The allegations in harassment were not supported by any evidence and were entirely fanciful. The Defendant should have summary judgment in respect of the harassment claim.
(3) There was no need for the court to consider the abuse of process argument.
This is the latest in a growing line of cases in which the judges of the jury list have struck out/dismissed defamation or malicious falsehood claims on the basis of the hopelessness of the malice claims, underlining the need for claimants to put forward only properly constructed malice pleas that are based on evidence. Despite the fact that there was no application to strike out the Claimant’s meanings as being unsustainable, the judge found that the Claimant had based his malice plea upon an exaggerated interpretation of the words complained of (paras 15 to 19, 3, 54) and that if the words were taken “to say what they mean” it was impossible to infer malice, highlighting the relationship between malice and meaning. One needs to look at the meaning objectively when assessing the viability of a malice claim. The case is also noteworthy for the approach to Part 24 applications where the Claimant has not applied for a direction for trial by jury.