Serious harm test not met by aggregation

Mr Justice Warby hands down second judgment in Sube v News Group & Express, on effect of combining lesser imputations

The High Court has held that the statutory requirement for a defamatory statement to cause serious harm to reputation cannot be met by aggregating injury to reputation caused by two or more less harmful imputations within a publication.

Mr Justice Warby today handed down judgment in Sube v News Group Newspapers & Express Newspapers (No 2).

The claim was for libel and related causes of action concerning a number of articles published by the Defendants in The Sun, Daily Express and the Daily Star online about the Claimants. In 2016, the Claimants, a married couple with 8 children, were in dispute with Luton Council about the adequacy of the housing which had been offered to them. There was extensive national newspaper coverage, some of which was critical of the Cs, including for allegedly rejecting a five-bedroom house as too small.

At an earlier hearing, the Court had struck out parts of the claim, ruling that the articles in issue did not convey any defamatory factual imputations about the claimants.  The Court left open for further argument the question of whether a statement that conveys a number of imputations (which individually do not satisfy the s.1 serious harm requirement) can cross the serious harm threshold when those imputations are considered collectively.

In now ruling on that question, the Court noted the general importance of the point of law and concluded that it was not open to a Claimant to meet the serious harm requirement in s.1 of the Defamation Act 2013 by accumulation of meanings. The Judge held that a statement is only defamatory of a person if it conveys an imputation about the person which tends to lower them in the opinion of right thinking people generally and causes or is likely to cause serious harm to their reputation.

5RB’s Christina Michalos acted for Express Newspapers, the Second Defendant.

A 5RB case report can be found here.