Full case report

Gleaner Co v Abrahams

Reference [2003] UKPC 55; [2004] 1 AC 628; [2003] 3 WLR 1038; [2003] EMLR 737
Court Privy Council

Judge Lords Hoffmann, Hope, Hobhouse, Millett and Tipping J

Date of Judgment 14 Jul 2003


Summary

Defamation – Libel – Damages – Whether the award by the jury was excessive – Constitutional law – Human Rights- Freedom of expression – foreign jurisdictions – Jamaica


Facts

In 1987 the two daily newspapers in Jamaica, the Daily Gleaner and the Star, both owned by the Appellant company, published defamatory articles about the Respondent, the former minister for tourism for Jamaica. The Appellant relied on defences of justification and qualified privilege but these were both struck out. After a trial on the issue of damages only, the jury awarded 80.7 million Jamaican dollars (approximately £1.2 million). The Court of Appeal of Jamaica reduced the award to 35 million Jamaican dollars (approximately £533,000). The Appellant appealed to the Privy Council, arguing that the award was still excessive and would have an inhibiting effect on the exercise of the constitutional right to freedom of expression.


Issue

(1) Whether the award of the equivalent of £533,000 was excessive; (2) Whether the award would have an inhibiting effect on freedom of expression.


Held

Appeal dismissed. Restrictions on the freedom of expression were necessary to protect the reputations of others. The test in Rantzen v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [1994] QB 670, namely whether a reasonable jury could have thought that the award was necessary to compensate the claimant and re-establish his reputation, was correctly applied by the Court of Appeal of Jamaica. The argument that the award was still too large failed. The Court was also right to include punitive and deterrent elements in the award.


Comment

This judgment is significant in two respects: (1) it holds that there is a deterrent role to be played by damages in defamation actions: “In the case of any tort, liability to pay damages as compensation for loss or harm is capable of having some deterrent or exemplary effect and this is particularly true of defamation… It is true that in Broome v Cassel & Co Ltd [1972] AC 1027, 1077 Lord Hailsham said that compensatory and exemplary damages were ‘as incompatible as oil and vinegar’ but most judges have accepted that in many cases the two purposes are inextricably mixed. The monetary value which a society places upon reputation and freedom from unjustified shame and humiliation is bound to be a conventional figure. The higher it is set, the greater the deterrence.”; and (2) it criticises the attempt to equate damages in defamation actions with those awarded in personal injury claims. If accepted by the English Court, the effect will be to inflate damages awards in media cases.


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Instructing Solicitors

Theodore Goddard for the Appellant; Finers Stephens Innocent for the Respondent.