Defamation 'victory for poor'

COURT ACTIONS to clear the names of those defamed by the media will no longer be the exclusive privilege of the rich, following a ruling by the Court of Appeal yesterday.

Three judges paved the way for aggrieved people unable to afford the thousands of pounds needed to launch a libel action - for which no legal aid funding is available - to bring claims for 'malicious falsehood', which does qualify for financial aid.

Mark Stephens, the solicitor in the case, welcomed the ruling as a 'victory for the poor'.

He said: 'The courts have remedied a great social injustice . . . they have finally recognised that poor people have the right to clear their names if newspapers recklessly lie about them.'

He was representing Linda Joyce, 34, of Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, a former maid to the Princess Royal, who wanted to sue Today newspaper over a front- page article which wrongly accused her of stealing the princess's personal mail. Miss Joyce had been advised she would need pounds 40,000 to start a libel claim against the newspaper which, as a former maid earning less than pounds 5,000 a year, she did not have.

Instead, she embarked on a claim for the rarely used common law of malicious falsehood, At the request of Today, the claim was initially thrown out by a deputy High Court judge, who ruled that it was, in reality, a disguised libel action and was an abuse of the court processes.

But yesterday Sir Donald Nicholls, the Vice-Chancellor, sitting with Lord Justice Butler-Sloss and Sir Michael Kerr, overturned the ruling.

He said: 'The plaintiff's main purpose in bringing this action is to clear her name. If she wins, she will succeed in doing so. Compared with a libel action, the amount of damages she may recover in malicious falsehood may be small, but there is no reason why she should not be able to pursue such a claim.'

It was, he said, 'as plain as a pikestaff that had legal aid been available for libel, this action would have been a straightforward defamation action'. The article had been 'grossly defamatory', he said.

'The newspaper did not publish any retraction or apology, although it had not sought to say that the assertions of fact were true,' he said.

But while malicious falsehood may provide some remedy for those unable to fund libel actions, it will be a more difficult and less lucrative course to follow. Complainants will have to prove an article or news item was false and that publication was prompted by malice - so that a news organisation which acted in good faith would not be liable. Further, the complainants will have to prove financial loss in order to recover damages. By contrast, in successful libel claims the injured party can win vast sums for damaged reputations.

Sir Donald said: 'Legal aid apart, there is no reason to suppose that in future, persons who are the subject of defamatory articles in newspapers will be queuing up to issue writs for malicious falsehood. It would make no sense for them to do so, and take on the burden of proving malice and, if successful, still not be able to recover damages for loss of reputation.'

Today had argued that the Legal Aid Board could now be flooded with applications for financial aid to pursue actions against newspapers for defamation - which was never intended by Parliament when it excluded libel from legal aid provision.

But the judges said the discretion about whether or not to grant aid rested with the Legal Aid Board. It would always be open to a defendant news organisation to take up unreasonable claims with the board.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before