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Trivial defamation claims must be discouraged, says Tugendhat

21 June 2010

Seriousness must be central to a claim for libel, the High Court has ruled.

Grappling with patchwork precedent on the issue, Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the claimed defamation was too trifling that it could not warrant pursuit.

The case, Thornton v Telegraph [2010] EWHC 1414 (QB), concerns a book review written by Lynn Barber in which accuses the author of allowing ‘copy approval’.

Throwing out the libel claim, Tugendhat J said: “Dr Thornton appears to share the view… that giving copy approval is something to be disapproved of. But that does not take the case any further towards making this a libel.

“The fact that the two parties to an action may both be members of a section of society holding particular views does not relieve the court from the obligation to try the case by the standards of members of society generally.”

Dr Thornton, represented by Taylor Hampton Solicitors, claimed the comment was an attack on her integrity as a professional writer.

But Tugendhat J, agreeing with The Telegraph’s counsel David Price, said: “I accept Mr Price’s submission that whatever definition of ‘defamatory’ is adopted, it must include a qualification or threshold of seriousness, so as to exclude trivial claims.

“The copy approval allegation is not capable of being a personal libel. It is not capable of meaning that Dr Thornton had done anything which in ordinary language could be highly reprehensible, or reprehensible at all.”

In his judgment, Tugendhat J scoured case law for assistance on where the bar of seriousness was set, including a consideration of Jameel v Dow Jones [2005] QB 946.

Here he stated a definition from a report by the Faulks Committee should be added in to the Jameel judgement, to glean a more robust definition of ‘seriousness’.

The judge states: “The word that would give effect to this by imposing the lowest threshold that might be envisaged is the word ‘substantially’. On that basis the definition would read: ‘the publication of which he complains may be defamatory of him because it substantially affects in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards him, or has a tendency so to do’.”

It was added that another part of the book review, in which the critic claims the author implies they spoke prior to publication, could still form the basis of a libel claim.

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