Reference:  EWHC 408 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 5 Mar 2004
Summary: Defamation – Libel – Qualified Privilege – Malice – CPR Part 3.4(2) – Strike out – Summary judgment – CPR Part 24
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Instructing Solicitors: Berrymans Lace Mawer for the Defendants, Claimant in person
The Claimant was a student completing a diploma in social work. As part of his diploma he completed a work placement at a Carers’ Centre (“the Centre”), which assisted and advised relatives who were caring for dependent friends or relatives. The Defendants were respectively the Manager and the Assistant Manager at the Centre. At the end of his placement, the Claimant’s Practice Teacher asked the Defendants to provide feedback on their experience of working with the Claimant. The Claimant sued for libel on the basis of these Reports. The Defendants relied upon qualified privilege and the Claimant asserted that the Defendants were malicious, in particular that they had given him a ‘humiliating’ talking doorknocker as a leaving present. The Master refused to find that there was no case in malice. The Defendants appealed.
(1) Whether the Master had erred in his assessment of malice; (2) Whether the Claimant had a sufficient basis for alleging malice; (3) Whether the Defendant should be granted judgment on the defence of qualified privilege.
(1) The publications were beyond argument protected by qualified privilege. So, the only way the claim could succeed was by proving malice. (2) To do this, the Claimant would have to show that the Defendants did not believe what they wrote in the feedback reports to be true (applying Horrocks v Lowe  1 AC 135). Even if they had given the Claimant a spiteful gift (which was assumed in the Claimant’s favour for the purposes of the hearing), this would not be evidence that the feedback reports were written dishonestly. The trial judge would be bound to withdraw the issue of malice from the jury. Accordingly the Claimant had no real prospect of succeeding on the claim, the appeal was allowed and summary judgment entered for the Defendants.
This is the latest in a line of decisions showing that the Jury list judges will scrutinise malice pleas at an early stage and remove those that do not come up to the exacting requirements for a plea of malice.