Reference:  EWHC 398 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 4 Mar 2009
Summary: Libel - Justification - Pleading of a Chase level 2 defence - Striking out
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Instructing Solicitors: Carter-Ruck for the Claimant; Blake Lapthorn for the Defendant
The Claimant was the husband of the Crown Princess of Romania. The Defendants were the editor and publisher of Royalty Monthly magazine. The magazine published an article which Eady J had previously held to mean (1) that there was a “very strong case” that the Claimant was never granted the title which he used, and that the document said to evidence the grant was a forgery, and (2) that he was guilty of having been an officer in Ceaucescu’s secret police.
The Claimant sought to strike out the pleaded defence of justification on the ground that many of the particulars were impermissible, and that others lacked particularity.
Whether the defence of justification should be struck out
Striking out the defence (subject to repleading):
(1) The allegations were very serious, and there was the clearest duty on any litigant who chose to allege fraud and forgery to let the “accused” know with complete frankness the case he had to meet;
(2) A defendant who seeks to justify a Chase level two meaning must comply with the disciplines set out in Musa King v Telegraph, not least by identifying the conduct said to have founded the suspicion, and not seeking to shift the burden of proof onto the claimant;
(3) Newspaper articles cannot be introduced into a defence of justification, as part of the factual matrix, or on the basis that the claimant has failed to refute them, even if that is part of the meaning sought to be justified;
(4) Lord Woolf’s observations in McPhilemy about witness statements supplementing the defence do not sanction any relaxation of the basic rule that a claimant is entitled to know the case he has to meet.
This is another case in which justification of a “grounds to suspect” or related meaning has been radically pruned to remove reliance on allegations or beliefs of others, previous publications, suspect documents, etc. Some of the rules, e.g. the conduct rule, may rest on shaky logical foundations, but are there to ensure fairness to the claimant. The sub-text may be that if the defendant cannot meet a responsible journalism test (Reynolds), he can fairly be restricted in running a defence of justification which does not accuse the cliamant of having done anything wrong.