Smaller proportion of defamation actions reaching trial

Year-on-year increase in number of statements in open court, reveals Sweet & Maxwell study

Media companies are becoming less willing to fight defamation actions all the way through to a verdict, according to a study by Sweet & Maxwell.

The survey, based on the publisher’s online archive of law reports and transcripts, revealed that 61% of all reported defamation cases over the 12 month period prior to May 2008 resulted in settlement, evidenced by statements in open court. This saw an increase from 56% of cases over the same period in 2006/7 and just 21% of cases in 2004/5.

The research also shows a steady increase in the share of cases featuring celebrities, which have almost doubled as a percentage of reported cases from 17% in 2004/5 to 32% in 2007/8. According to the report, 19 reported defamation cases involved celebrity claimants in that period, up from 11 in 2004/05.

Sweet & Maxwell suggests that the increase in celebrity-based cases reflects the growth in demand for celebrity-based stories rather than a culture of complaint among actors, models and reality TV show participants. “Competition to deliver this coverage can lead to factual errors being made which then prompt defamation claims,” says the company.

The researchers also concluded that there was a perceived difficulty in using the Reynolds qualified privilege defence in cases involving celebrities and suggested this as a possible reason for the increase.

Other media commentators have attributed the reduced number of libel trials to the greater financial risks involved in defending defamation actions as a consequence of claimants’ increasing use of Conditional Fee Agreements.