Reference:  EWHC 3823 (QB)
Court: High Court (QBD)
Judge: Sir Michael Tugendhat (sitting as a Judge of the High Court)
Date of judgment: 26 Nov 2014
Summary: Libel – trial of preliminary issues – meaning – serious harm (common law threshold)
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Appearances: Adam Wolanski KC (Claimant) Andrew Caldecott KC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Kobre & Kim (UK) LLP for the Claimants; RPC LLP for the Defendants
C1 is a billionaire investor, whose wealth largely derives from his 95% shareholding in a holding company, C2, which is listed on the Saudi Arabian stock exchange (the Tadawul) and of which C1 is Chairman.
D1 and D2 are the publishers of Forbes magazine (online and in print). Forbes produces an annual Billionaires List which ranks (in order of estimated net worth) all known privately-wealthy billionaires. C1 has appeared regularly on the list for many years, usually within the top twenty.
In March 2013, D1 and D2 published three online articles, the first of which was later re-published in hard copy in the UK.
C1 and C2 brought proceedings against D1-4 in respect of the first, second and fourth articles, and C1 alone brought proceedings against D1-3 in respect of the third article. After Ds acknowledged the jurisdiction of the English courts, a trial of preliminary issues by judge alone was ordered by consent.
- What was the meaning of the words complained of in the four articles?
- Was C2 able to overcome the common law threshold of seriousness of harm?
(1) The meaning of the first and fourth articles was neither the Chase Level 1 ‘guilt’ pleaded by Cs, nor just the ‘cogent grounds to suspect’ pleaded by Ds, but instead meant that there were ‘strong grounds to suspect’ C1 had been dishonestly involved in inflating the value of C2’s shares (and thus his own net worth) by billions of dollars.
(2) Sir Michael accepted Ds’ Lucas Box meaning in respect of the second article, finding it meant there were Chase Level 2 ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ the sacking of the auditors.
(3) Sir Michael accepted C1’s pleaded meaning in respect of the third article. C1 was entitled to confine his claim to the allegation concerning defaulting on contractual payments, even though the article undoubtedly did also bear the wider meanings pleaded by Ds: Polly Peck (Holdings) PLC v Trelford  Q.B. 1000 CA referred to.
(4) All the meanings were defamatory of C1, but were insufficiently serious for C2 to be co-claimant (applying the common law test of harm) .
The judge chose to formulate his own meaning of the first and fourth articles (which concerned alleged share price manipulation). Unusually, that meaning included compendious reference to what the five grounds to suspect actually were.
The judgment is also of interest as an example of a case in which a judge has prevented a defendant from justifying a wider meaning than that pleaded by the claimant, whilst acknowledging that the article does bear that wider meaning.