Bruno Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division
JudgeMr Justice Warby
Judgment Date30 July 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] EWHC 2242 (QB)
Docket NumberCase Nos: HQ14D05024 HQ15D00253 HQ15D00344 HQ15D00553
Date30 July 2015

[2015] EWHC 2242 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Before:

Mr Justice Warby

Case Nos: HQ14D05024

HQ14D05025

HQ15D00253

HQ15D00344

HQ15D00553

Between:
Bruno Lachaux
Claimant
and
Independent Print Limited
Defendant
Bruno Lachaux
Claimant
and
Evening Standard Limited
Defendant
Bruno Lachaux
Claimant
and
AOL (UK) Limited
Defendant

Adrienne Page QC and Godwin Busuttil (instructed by Taylor Hampton Solicitors Ltd) for the Claimant

David Price QC (of David Price Solicitors & Advocates) for Independent Print Ltd. & Evening Standard Ltd.

Manuel Barca QC and Hannah Ready (instructed by Lewis Silkin) for AOL

Hearing dates: 20–21 July 2015

Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

Mr Justice Warby Mr Justice Warby

A. INTRODUCTION

1

This is the trial of preliminary issues in these libel claims, pursuant to orders made by Nicola Davies J on 1 April 2015 and Nicol J on 29 June 2015.

2

The claimant is an aerospace engineer, a French national who currently teaches at a military college in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates ('UAE'), which is where he lives. He brings these claims against three different news publishers in respect of five articles first published between 20 January and 10 February 2014.

3

Two of the five articles were published online in the HuffingtonPost by AOL (UK) Ltd ('AOL'), represented by Mr Barca QC and Ms Ready. Two were published by Independent Print Ltd ('IPL') in hard copy, in The Independent newspaper and its sister paper, ' i'. The Independent article was also published online by IPL at www.independent.co.uk. The fifth article was published by Evening Standard Ltd ('ESL') in the Evening Standard newspaper and online at www.eveningstandard.co.uk. ESL is a sister company of IPL, and the two are jointly represented by Mr Price QC.

4

Each of the articles complained of contained an account of events in the UAE, including proceedings against the claimant's ex-wife, Afsana Lachaux ('Afsana'), for 'kidnapping' the couple's son. The articles reported allegations against the claimant said to have been made by Afsana, who was described in the first Huffington Post article as a 'British victim of domestic abuse'. Each article bears similar defamatory meanings about him. I shall come to the specific meanings of which he complains. For introductory purposes, it is fair to summarise the meanings as being that the claimant is a wife-beater; that when Afsana escaped, taking their son with her, he falsely accused her of kidnap, causing her to face the risk of being jailed on such a charge; and that he unjustifiably snatched their son back from her.

5

The claims relate to publication in this jurisdiction and, in the case of the Huffington Post ('the Post'), Independent, and Evening Standard, online in Dubai. The agreed readership figures for the two Post articles together are some 4,800. For the IPL articles the agreed readership figures for the print copies are 154,370 – 231,555 (the Independent) and 523,518 – 785,277 (the 'i'). The Independent article had 5,655 unique visitors online. The Evening Standard readership figures are 1.67 – 2.5 million for the print edition and 1,955 unique visitors online.

6

The main issue for my decision is, in relation to each article, whether the publication of such allegations about this claimant by these defendants in this jurisdiction and Dubai, to the extent just outlined, has caused or is likely to cause sufficient harm to the claimant's reputation to justify the bringing of these claims.

7

Now that jury trial is very much the exception in libel actions (see Yeo v Times Newspapers Ltd [2014] EWHC 2853 (QB), [2015] 1 WLR 971) orders for the trial of preliminary issues of this kind are easier to make, and more common. In this case, meaning has already been tried as a preliminary issue in two of the claims. In ordering the trial of the preliminary issues now before me Nicola Davies J and Nicol J were following a course I recommended in Ames v The Spamhaus Project Ltd [2015] EWHC 127 (QB), [2015] EMLR 13 [101].

B. ISSUES

8

The preliminary issues ordered to be tried are:

i) Reference. In the claims against IPL and ESL there are issues as to whether, or the extent to which, the words complained of referred or were understood to refer to the claimant.

ii) Meaning. In three of the claims – the two against AOL and the second claim against IPL – there are some issues about the natural and ordinary meaning of the words complained of.

iii) Serious harm. In relation to all five claims, I have to decide whether the publication of the words complained of satisfies what I shall call 'the serious harm requirement' laid down by s 1(1) Defamation Act 2013 ('the 2013 Act'): that the publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

iv) Abuse of process. In the AOL claims I have to decide whether, pursuant to the principles established in Jameel v Dow Jones [2005] EWCA Civ 75, [2005] 1 QB 946 (' Jameel') the pursuit of the claim constitutes an abuse of the court's process on one or more of four grounds specified in the order of Nicola Davies J.

9

The legal principles that apply to the first, second and fourth issues are well settled. Although, as will be seen, there has been some difference of approach to the reference issue, the main issues of law and fact that arise concern the serious harm requirement. I have to resolve disputes about the true construction of s 1(1) of the 2013 Act, and to apply the law as I find it to the facts I find established by the evidence.

10

Two main issues of law arise in relation to the serious harm requirement. The first is whether, on the proper construction of s 1(1), what a claimant must prove in order to satisfy the serious harm requirement is (a) as the claimant maintains, that the offending words have a tendency to cause serious harm to the claimant's reputation; or (b) as the defendants submit, that serious harm to the claimant's reputation has in fact been caused or is likely to be caused. The second issue in relation to the 2013 Act is whether, in reaching a conclusion on the issue of whether a given publication caused or is likely to cause serious harm, the court can and should take any and if so what account of other publications to the same or similar effect as the material complained of.

11

It is perhaps as well to make clear at the outset what this trial is not about.

i) This is not a dispute about jurisdiction. As their corporate names suggest, each of the defendants is a company registered in England and Wales. There is no dispute that this court has, and is bound to exercise, jurisdiction over these claims against these defendants, if the claims cross the threshold of seriousness set by English law.

ii) I am not deciding any issue about the truth or falsity of what was stated in the articles complained of. This is an important feature of a preliminary issue trial of this kind. In one of the claims against IPL, and in the claim against ESL, Defences have been served asserting that the articles were true. As Ms Page has been at pains to make clear, however, the claimant emphatically denies that there was any truth in any of the articles, so far as his conduct is concerned. It is not my task to decide which side is right about this.

iii) Nor is this judgment concerned with whether the defence of public interest, on which IPL and ESL also rely, may be available to them, or to AOL. Nor do I have to decide the merits of any other affirmative defence.

12

The fact that it is not necessary or indeed relevant to plead let alone investigate the merits of defences in order to determine whether a publication is harmful enough to justify the pursuit of a libel claim is one of the main justifications for trying issues of meaning and harm as preliminary issues. The potential savings in costs and time for the parties and the court are enormous. I return to this point later.

C. RELEVANT LEGAL PRINCIPLES

13

The determination of whether a published statement is defamatory of an individual claimant is now a three-stage process. It must be decided whether, to the extent this is disputed, the statement (1) refers to the claimant; (2) bears a meaning that is defamatory of the claimant; and (3) has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

14

Stages (1) and (2) reflect the requirements of the common law. Stage (2) can and sometimes must be sub-divided into two separate elements: (a) the identification of the meaning of the words, and (b) the determination of whether that meaning is defamatory. Stage (3) reflects the serious harm requirement enacted by Parliament in s 1(1) of the 2013 Act. It will be necessary to consider the impact of that amendment in the context of the common law and the Jameel abuse of process doctrine, developed under the influence of the Human Rights Act 1998.

(i) The common law

15

The common law principles applicable to the process I have identified are clearly established, and not the subject of any major dispute. They can therefore be quite shortly summarised, without the need for extensive citation. The nature of the parties' arguments makes it convenient to set out some of the common law principles as to damage at the same time.

Reference

(1) "It is an essential element of the cause of action for defamation that the words complained of should be published 'of the [claimant]'": Knupffer v London Express [1944] AC 116, 120. This does not mean the claimant must be named. The question is whether reasonable people would understand the words to refer to the claimant:

"The test of whether...

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