Reference:  EWHC 483 (QB)
Court: High Court Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Bean J
Date of judgment: 5 Mar 2012
Summary: Defamation - offer of amends - damages
Download: Download this judgment
Instructing Solicitors: YVA for C; In House for MGN
The claimant (C) was the natural father of Baby P, Peter Connolly, who died of neglect. C was not involved. The People (MGN) published a story which falsely alleged that C was a sex offender and had been convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s. MGN made an offer of amends under s. 2 of the Defamation Act 1996 and promptly offered to publish an apology. No agreement could be reached on the appropriate level of compensation payable. Without prejudice offers were put forward by both sides. The case came before the court for a hearing on damages. MGN argued that very few people would have identified C as the father of Baby P and that he must be too young to have been convicted of rape in the 1970s. C relied on the fact that the article was published contemporaneously with proceedings in which he had applied for an order that his other children be placed with him be made permanent.
What was the appropriate level of compensation to be awarded under s. 3(5) of the Defamation Act 1996 applying the two-stage test:
Determining the level of damages at £75,000 :
1. Admissions of liability under the offer of amends regime and publications of apologies are relevant to the second stage when the Court makes an assessment of the mitigating factors and discounts the starting figure representing a hypothetical damages figure post-trial.
2. The argument that C would not be identifiable as the father of Baby P and on the facts in the article did not succeed. Acquaintances might not know his age, and the presence of true facts about him in the article fuelled readers’ suspicion. Taking into consideration newspaper circulation and readership figures of 500,000 and 1.2 million respectively, the starting point figure was £150,000.
3. A clear, unqualified apology published promptly attracted a discount of 50%. Correspondence and negotiations over the printing of an apology over a few weeks, conducted in an appropriate manner, did not diminish the level of discount.
Where the conduct of a defendant in making an offer of amends promptly and publishing a clear apology is beyond reproach by the Court a ‘healthy discount’ of 50% may be applied. In this case the Court was more influenced by the seriousness of the false allegation of rape than by the argument that the claimant was not named, not famous and identifiable to relatively few readers. Adjusted for inflation the notional ceiling of damages in defamation cases appears to be £256,000 although it was recently stated to be £230-240,000 in Al-Amoudi v Kifle  EWHC 2037 (QB).