Reference:  EWCA Civ 772
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Laws, King and Lindblom LJJ
Date of judgment: 26 Jul 2016
Summary: Libel - meaning - justification
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Appearances: Adam Wolanski KC (Appellant) Aidan Eardley KC (Respondent)
Instructing Solicitors: Simons, Muirhead and Burton for the Appellant, Lewis Silkin for the Respondent
The footballer Danny Simpson sued MGN over an article concerning his relationship with the singer Tulisa Contostavlos. It was based on remarks made by his former partner Stephanie Ward. At a preliminary trial Warby J determined the meaning of the article. He went on to consider whether the Defendant’s particulars of justification were capable of meeting that meaning. He concluded that they could not, since MGN did not seek to justify certain essential features of the defamatory meaning. MGN appealed the decision to strike out, but not the ruling on meaning.
Whether the judge was right to strike out the plea of justification.
Allowing the appeal, the judge was wrong to strike out the plea of justification. He had placed too much emphasis on MGN’s failure to seek to justify the assertions within the article that Mr Simpson and Ms Ward cohabited at the time Mr Simpson embarked on his relationship with Ms Contostavlos; and its failure to seek to justify Ms Ward’s claim that she had given up a legal career for Mr Simpson.
The extent to which these matters went to the sting of the libel should be left to be determined by the judge at trial, having heard the evidence. The court considered that the essential sting of the article consisted in the assertion of “a selfish disruption of a committed family relationship with father, mother, child and another child to come”.
The decision is interesting for its examination of the distinction between defamatory meaning and defamatory sting. The court noted that the meaning of a defamatory statement does not necessarily establish the intensity of its sting. Courts should therefore not too ready strike out pleas of justification (or truth) where there is room for disagreement as to the intensity of the defamatory sting, whatever meaning the words bear.