Tilbrook v Parr

Reference: [2012] EWHC 1946 (QB)

Court: High Court

Judge: Tugendhat J

Date of judgment: 13 Jul 2012

Summary: Defamation - Reference

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Appearances: Jonathan Scherbel-Ball (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Hemingways Solicitors Ltd


The Claimant was the Chairman of the political party the English Democrats and also a solicitor. The Defendant was a UKIP local councillor and the author of an online blog known as ‘Bloggers4UKIP’.

In November 2011, the Defendant published a posting on the blog under the heading ‘BNP Butler joined BNP Barnbrook in the English Democrats”. The blog posting claimed that two allegedly former members of the BNP had joined the English Democrats and concluded with the tagline “English Democrats: not left, not right, just racist”.

The Claimant sued for libel, claiming that the blog posting meant that he was racist, and that the posting was capable of referring to the Claimant as he was the Chairman of the English Democrats. The Defendant applied to strike out the claim on the basis that the words complained of were not capable of referring to the Claimant.


The question for the court at this preliminary stage was not whether the words complained of would be understood to refer to the Claimant, but whether they were reasonable capable of being understood to refer to him.

Where a claimant was not named in a publication, the court should consider whether the words complained of would lead persons reasonably acquainted with the claimant to believe that he was the person referred to by the publication – Morgan v Odhams Press [1971] 1 WLR 1239 per Lord Morris, Knupffer Express Newspapers Ltd [1944] AC 116 per Viscount Simon LC.

The Claimant had not identified any publishees who had understood the words to refer to him, nor had he identified any facts which might be known to any particular publishees beyond that he was the Chairman of the English Democrats. In his letter before action, the Claimant had identified potential claimants as himself and all other publicly identified officers of the English Democrats.

Tugendhat J ruled that the case was indistinguishable from the House of Lords’ decision in Knupffer v Express Newspapers Ltd [1944] AC 116. In that case, the court had ruled that a reference to ‘Mlado Russ’ (‘Young Russia’, a political party of ‘fascist ideology’, whose membership comprised 24 in Britain) was incapable of referring to the party’s leader. In Knupffer, the House of Lords stated that it was not sufficient that readers of the article thought of the claimant as the leader of the party in question – there was nothing in the article itself which ought to suggest even to his acquaintances that he was referred to as an individual.

Moreover, the common law had long recognised the right to freedom of expression, most recently enshrined in Article 10 ECHR. It was of the utmost importance that democratically elected public bodies and political parties should be open to uninhibited public criticism without fear of political censorship – Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534 and Goldsmith v Bhoyrul [1998] QB 459 applied.

In this case, there was nothing which suggested that the blog posting referred to the Claimant. Indeed, to the extent that any individuals were the targets of the allegation of racism in the blog, it was more likely to be understood to refer to the two alleged former BNP individuals identified in the blog, rather than the Claimant. There was also a risk that discussion of matters of public concern could be inhibited if the law was too ready to hold that an attack on a political group identified an individual who was not named.


Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the words complained of were incapable of referring to the Claimant.


A short judgment of a relatively rare recent example of a claim which has been struck out for lack of sufficient reference to a claimant. The judgment is interesting in that it demonstrates the courts’ alertness to article 10 issues when the words complained of are published in the context of political discussion.

See also the near contemporaneous decision of Tugendhat J in Crow v Johnson [2012] EWHC 1982 (QB).