Full case report
Crossley & Crossley v Newsquest (Midlands South) Limited
Reference  EWHC 3054 (QB)
Court High Court
Judge Eady J
Date of Judgment 11 Dec 2008
Libel – Privacy – Summary judgment – Absolute privilege – Qualified privilege – Fair comment – Malice – Abuse of process – Newspaper article reporting neighbours’ dispute
The Claimants (Cs) had been involved in a long-running dispute with their neighbours, the Ws, over disposal of sewage. The dispute had been adjudicated on in the county court in Ws favour and Cs had been ordered to pay costs. A month after the conclusion of the county court trial, Cs unsuccessfully applied to vary the costs order. The local newspaper reported the application and the underlying country court proceedings, and included comments from Ws in the article.
Cs sued the newspaper (D) and, in a separate claim, Ws, for defamation. D applied for strike out/summary judgment on various bases. Cs sought to amend their claim to add a claim for invasion of privacy, based on the publication in the article of details of their financial affairs that had been referred to in open court. The Master struck out the claim/gave summary judgment against Cs on a number of bases including holding that the claim was an abuse of process and refused leave to amend. Cs appealed to the Judge.
(1) Whether the Master was wrong to hold that the defences of absolute and/or qualified privilege and/or fair comment and/or justification were bound to succeed;
(2) Whether the Master was wrong to hold that the claim was an abuse of process;
(3) Whether the Master was wrong in refusing Cs permission to amend to add a claim for invasion of privacy.
Dismissing the appeal:
The Master had been right to hold that the parts of the article referring to the dispute were protected by absolute alternatively qualified privilege; and to hold that the comments made by Ws in the article were protected by fair comment; and to exclude the plea of malice, and therefore to strike out, or to give summary judgment on the claim. In addition, the Master was entitled to reach the conclusion that justification was bound to succeed and that the claim was an abuse of process. The application to add a privacy claim based on the report of information that had been discussed in open court was misconceived.
The court determined that the protection offered by the law to reports of proceedings in open court protects not only against claims for defamation, but also against privacy claims. As the Judge commented in the course of argument, the media are entitled to regard there as being a “bright line” division between matters referred to in open court, which are lawfully publishable, and private matters that are not referred to in court. This is an unsurprising result, but nevertheless one that may afford reassurance to those in the business of reporting the courts. But publishers should not be complacent. The result may not have been the same if the report had not been privileged, either because it was not fair or accurate or because it was not contemporaneous and not of public concern and for the public benefit.
Cs in person; Farrer & Co. for the D
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