Expenses MP in libel setback

Aggravated damages principles clarified as Eady J strikes out meanings

Evening Standard Limited (ESL) has struck out the meanings in a claim brought against it by Conservative MP Jacqui Lait.

ESL applied to strike out Lait’s claim, which related to an Evening Standard article of November 2009 about MPs’ expenses. The article referred to Ms Lait’s opposition to expenses reforms, and stated that she had been forced to repay £25,000 after it emerged that she had made a major capital gain on a tax-payer funded home. In fact it was another MP who had done so. ESL published a correction, but Ms Lait claimed that the article meant that she had “deliberately failed to account for a large profit she had made on the sale of a taxpayer-funded home, a deception so serious that the Parliamentary Fees Office ordered her to pay back almost £25,000.”

Eady J ruled that the article was capable of defaming the Claimant, as the references to her were clearly critical of her, but the article was not capable of bearing the pleaded defamatory meaning. It was also incapable of conveying any allegation of tax evasion or other unlawful conduct, or of tax avoidance or ‘flipping’.

Lait had also pleaded additional meanings in aggravation of damages, arguing that the normal rules on meaning had no application to an aggravated damages plea. Striking out the additional meanings, Eady J said “It is muddling to rely on a different meaning as aggravation in respect of the damage supposedly occasioned by the publication of the words themselves.” Applying the usual principles for meaning applications, Eady J accepted ESL’s submission that the article was not capable of bearing one of the additional meanings, and a further meaning was struck out on the grounds that it was an innuendo based on events occurring after publication.

5RB’s Mark Warby QC and Victoria Jolliffe (instructed by Taylor Wessing) acted for ESL.

For more details and a copy of the judgment, see the 5RB case report.