Reference:  EWCA Civ 1263
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Lord Phillips MR, Latham & Jonathan Parker LJJ
Date of judgment: 23 Jul 2001
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Meaning - Ruling on Meaning - CPR Part 53 PD 4.1 - Principles to be applied
Instructing Solicitors: Bindman & Partners for the Defendant
The Claimant, Victoria Gillick, complained that she had been defamed in a factsheet published by the Defendants which included the words “the legal case taken by Victoria Gillick in the early 1980s confused young people over their rights to confidential advice and deterred many from seeking contraceptive help … although the case concluded in 1985 in favour of young people’s rights, fear and uncertainty lingered on among teenagers and professionals working with them”. She contended that the meaning borne by those words was that she “was morally responsible for a 23 per cent increase in pregnancies among 15 to 19 year-olds during the 1980s”. Eady J had ruled that the factsheet was incapable of suggesting that she was “morally responsible” and dismissed her action. The Claimant appealed.
(1) The principles to be applied on a ruling on meaning;
(2) Whether the words complained of were capable of conveying the Claimant’s meaning and whether that meaning was defamatory.
(1) The Court approved Eady J’s synthesis of the law as to the approach to be adopted.
(2) The words were capable of bearing the Claimant’s meaning and that meaning was defamatory of her. Appeal allowed.
The capacity of “moral responsibility” to convey a defamatory meaning also arose in Mrs Gillick’s earlier case against the BBC  EMLR 267. In that case, Millett LJ (dissenting) suggested that “moral responsibility” could not be defamatory as it suggested that the person was not really responsible. In order to be defamatory the words had to convey a sense of being “morally responsible to a culpable degree.” However, the Court of Appeal again refused to accept that the simple “morally responsible” meaning could be ruled out as not defamatory at the capacity stage. It is to be noted that Gray J held – in later summary disposal proceedings in the same case – that the words were not, in fact, defamatory of the Claimant (unreported, 12 March 2002). The Claimant appealed that decision and the action settled before the appeal.