The claimant was Triplark Ltd (‘Triplark’), a company which owned the freehold of Northwood Hall, a London apartment block, and around 30 flats in the block.
The first defendant, Northwood Hall (Freehold) Ltd (‘NHFL’), was a company incorporated in 2017 with the aim of implementing a scheme for the collective enfranchisement of individual leaseholders at Northwood Hall. The second defendant, Mr Philip Whale, was a director of NHFL, and a leaseholder at the block. The third defendant, Mr David Wismayer, was engaged to assist with the scheme.
The claimant brought actions in libel and malicious falsehood against the defendants over two documents distributed at the block in March 2018. The first document, ‘the Invitation’, sought to encourage leaseholders to join a collective enfranchisement scheme and buy out the freehold at Northwood Hall. The second document, ‘the Letter’, constituted a response to claims concerning the scheme, and to allegations made against the defendants.
The claimant alleged that the Invitation meant that:
- “the Claimant has incompetently maintained and intentionally neglected Northwood Hall in breach of its obligations as the freeholder”;
- “the Claimant has artificially and wrongly inflated premiums for lease extensions and unjustifiably overcharged tenants by forcing them to pay exorbitant professional costs”; and
- “the Claimant has acted in a wholly reprehensible manner by taking advantage of vulnerable Leaseholders by blackmailing them with a view to unlawfully extorting service charge arrears from those individuals”.
The claimant contended that all three meanings contained defamatory imputations of fact.
The defendants argued that the claimant’s meanings were artificial, went beyond what was said or implied by the Invitation, and were the product of an over-elaborate analysis. They contended that, when read as a whole, the Invitation was not defamatory of the claimant, but if the Court held that it was then it was an expression of opinion.
In respect of the Letter, the claimant alleged that it meant that:
- “the Claimant is responsible for a relentless propaganda campaign that has made various misleading and untrue claims about the Scheme, as well as false statements about NHFL and other individuals supporting the Scheme, in particular Mr Whale and Mr Gay”;
- “the Claimant has acted unlawfully in making those statements about NHFL and other associated individuals because the statements are false and are therefore highly defamatory, and are so serious that they require a retraction and an apology to be made by the Claimant to remedy the harm caused to those in respect of whom the statements were made”; and
- “the Claimant has engaged in this type of outrageous and unlawful behaviour in an improper bid to undermine the Scheme by confusing the Leaseholders and dissuading and/or preventing them from exercising their legal rights, and thereby preventing them from realising the full value of their interests in Northwood Hall”.
As with the Invitation, the claimant contended that all three meanings were defamatory factual imputations. Again, the defendants argued that the claimant’s meanings were the product of an over-elaborate analysis; that the Letter was not defamatory; and that if the Court did indeed find the letter to be defamatory, it was an expression of opinion.
Master McCloud directed a trial of four preliminary issues in respect of both documents:
- whether the word complained of bore the meanings complained of, and if not, what natural and ordinary meanings they bore about the claimant;
- whether the meanings found were defamatory of the claimant at common law;
- whether the words complained of, in the meanings found, were statements of fact or expressions of opinion; and
- if, to any extent, the answer to (3) was that the words complained of, in the meanings found, were expressions of opinion, whether the publication indicated, in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion(s) stated.