Howlett v Holding and Holding & Barnes Plc
Reference:  EWHC 286 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 25 Feb 2003
Defamation - Libel - Qualified privilege - Striking out - CPR 3.4(2) - Summary Judgment - CPR Part 24
Instructing Solicitors: Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners for the Claimant. Jennings Son & Ash for the Defendants.
The Claimant was a Labour councillor in Essex. The first Defendant published to the general public allegations that the Claimant was guilty of theft and therefore unfit to hold her position as councillor. The Claimant brought an action for libel. The Defendants relied on justification and qualified privilege. The Defendants contended that the Claimant had once left a Tesco store with goods for which she had not paid and had been escorted back into the store by store detectives. She was not arrested or charged with shoplifting or any offence. The Claimant applied for the defence of qualified privilege to be struck out.
Whether there was a real prospect of the Defendant’s plea of qualified privilege being successful.
For the purposes of the plea of qualified privilege, the Defendants could not rely on information that came into their possession after the date of publication. There was no real prospect of the Defendants establishing any duty to publish what they did on the basis of their knowledge at the time. The fact that the Defendants believed the Claimant to have been guilty was not enough. The defence of qualified privilege was struck out.
This is an example of the pitfalls of jumping to conclusions. The meaning conveyed by the defamatory material was guilt of shoplifting whereas the information available to the Defendant, at best, could only amount to grounds to suspect the Claimant of the offence. Those facts, when measured against the requirements for qualified privilege left the Defendant exposed. His idosyncratic method of delivering his message perhaps didn’t help: he organised an aerial banner to be flown behind an aeroplane. The message, although brief and pithy, left little room for debate as to the meaning conveyed. At the subsequent trial of the action, the jury awarded the Claimant £65,000 damages,