Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeLord Reid,Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest,Lord Guest,Lord Donovan,Lord Pearson
Judgment Date29 June 1971
Judgment citation (vLex)[1971] UKHL J0629-3

[1971] UKHL J0629-3

House of Lords

Lord Reid

Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest

Lord Guest

Lord Donovan

Lord Pearson

Morgan
and
Odhams Press Limited and Another

Upon Report from the Appellate Committee, to whom was referred the Cause Morgan against Odhams Press Limited and another, that the Committee had heard Counsel, as well on wednesday the 24th, Thursday the 25th, Monday the 29th, Tuesday the 30th and wednesday, the 31st days or March last, as on Thursday the 1st day of April last, upon the Petition and Appeal of Johnny Morgan, of 62 Chichele Road, London, N.W.2, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order or Her Majesty's Court of Appeal of the 20th of February 1970, might be reviewed before Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered, or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, might seem meet; as also upon the Case of Odhams Press Limited and Peter Campling, lodged in answer to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen assembled, That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal of the 20th day of February 1970, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby, Reversed, and that the Judgment of the Honourable Mr. Justice O'Connor of the 12th day of May 1969 be, and the same is hereby, Restored on the issue of Liability and as to Costs: And it is further Ordered, That the Cause be, and the same is hereby, remitted back to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice with a Direction that a new Trial be had on the quantum of damages: And it is also further Ordered, That the Respondents do pay, or cause to be paid, to the said Appellant four-fifths of the Costs incurred by him in the Court of Appeal, and also four-fifths of the Costs incurred by him in respect of the said Appeal to this House, the amount of such last-mentioned Costs to be certified by the Clerk of the Parliaments.

Lord Reid

My Lords,

1

On 8th November, 1965, the Respondents published in their newspaper "The Sun" an article which the Appellant thought referred to and defamed him. Two months later he issued a writ and statement of claim. More than three years elapsed before the trial of the action. During this time the case was taken twice to the Court of Appeal in proceedings under Order 18 rule 19 on the ground that the Appellant's statement of claim and particulars disclosed no reasonable cause of action.

2

I understand that your Lordships are agreed that this procedure is only intended to apply to cases where it is plain and obvious that the plaintiff has no case. Whether that is plain and obvious or only arguable can depend on little more than first impression. The Court of Appeal on the second occasion could decide no more than that the case should go to trial. It seems to me to be very regrettable that existing procedure permits the expenditure of so much time and money as occurred in this case on so simple a preliminary issue.

3

The article complained of has been set out by my noble and learned friends and I shall not set it out again. The question in this case is not whether the words are defamatory: plainly the words are. The two questions which arose here were whether they were capable of referring to the Appellant and whether they did so refer. The first was for the trial judge when the Respondents took the point at the conclusion of the Appellant's evidence at the trial. Owing to the somewhat elaborate judgments in the Court of Appeal the trial judge seems to have thought that this question had been decided there: he did not realise, and I can hardly blame him, that the Court of Appeal had no power to decide that question, and that he must decide it himself. So he left the case to the jury.

4

The jury found for the Appellant and awarded damages of £4,750. Two questions are now before us for decision: first, whether the case ought to have been left to the jury; and secondly, whether there was misdirection by the trial judge either on the merits or on the question of damages. It was also argued that even if there was no misdirection the amount of damages is excessive: about that I shall say no more than that, if the jury was properly directed, I could not hold that this amount was so clearly and greatly excessive that the verdict could not stand.

5

It must often happen that a defamatory statement published at large does not identify any particular person and that an ordinary member of the public who reads it in its context cannot tell who is referred to. But readers with special knowledge can and do read it as referring to a particular person. A number of matters are not in dispute in this case. It does not matter whether the publisher intended to refer to the plaintiff or not. It does not even matter whether he knew of the plaintiff's existence. And it does not matter that he did not know or could not have known the facts which caused the readers with special knowledge to connect the statement with the plaintiff. Indeed the damage done to the plaintiff by the publication may be of a kind which the publisher could not have foreseen. That may be out of line with the ordinary rule limiting damage for which a tortfeasor is liable, but that point does not arise in this case.

6

On the other hand when people come and say that they thought that the plaintiff was referred to by a statement which does not identify anyone there must be some protection for a defendant who is thus taken unawares. It is now well settled that the plaintiff must give sufficient particulars of the special facts on which he or his witnesses rely. But that in itself may not be enough. It may be plain and obvious that no sensible person could, by reason of knowing these facts, jump to the conclusion that the defamatory words refer to the plantiff. Then Order 18 rule 19 can be used to stop the case from going to trial. Otherwise the case goes to trial.

7

The next protection for the defendant is that at the end of the plaintiff's case the judge may be called upon to rule whether the words complained of are capable of referring to the plaintiff in light of the special facts or knowledge proved in evidence. The main question in this case is—how is he to make that decision? It is often said that because a question is for the judge to answer it must be a question of law. I have more than once stated my view that the meaning of words is not a question of law in the true sense, even in other departments of the law where a much stricter test of the meaning of words is adopted than in the law of libel. It is simply a question which our law reserves for the judge.

8

The question of how words should be read in libel cases was discussed in Lewis v. Daily Telegraph [1964] A.C. 234 and I shall not repeat what was said there. We have to consider how "ordinary sensible men" (per Lord Devlin at page 286) would understand the words. So here the judge had to consider how ordinary sensible men, having the special knowledge proved, could understand the words complained of.

9

But the Court of Appeal imposed a farther, to my mind artificial, limitation—"There must be some key or pointer in the article itself indicating that it refers to the plaintiff" [1970] W.L.R. at page 828). "There must be some words, some initials, some asterisks, some reference or other to him, such that the pleader can insert in these days, as he always did in the old days, the key words in brackets '(meaning thereby the plaintiff)'" (ib. 829). "There must be something in the article which pointed to the plaintiff" (ib. 831). "… the Court must be satisfied that there is something in the article itself to serve as a peg upon which to hang the alleged identification of the plaintiff as the person referred to—something, in other words, which expressly or by implication points to the plaintiff" (ib. 832).

10

In my view, the second of these quotations cannot possibly be right. Suppose a statement that X is illegitimate, and an action by X's mother. It seems to me obvious, and counsel did not contend otherwise, that if the statement is untrue, the law could not deny an action to the mother. But there is no word after which the pleader could insert (meaning thereby X's mother).

11

Then I ask what kind of peg, key or pointer would be sufficient. Suppose the statement is that "X was murdered at 10.5 p.m.—we know the time because his watch was smashed at that time and we know it was accurate—and at 10.10 a man believed to be the murderer was heard running on the pavement outside the house". The plaintiff left a party in the next door house at 10.10 and ran to catch a bus and he brings an action. Is "a man" a sufficient peg? The pleader could add (meaning thereby the plantiff). Or suppose the statement was "A man wearing a hat and a dark overcoat believed to be the murderer was seen …" Is that a sufficient peg? Or "a tall man with a limp was seen …" Is that sufficient? Just how much particularity must there be?

12

Let me test the matter by supposing that the statements in the Respondents' article had been somewhat different. Suppose it had said that Margaret Murray had been kidnapped by the doping gang and taken to a house in Cricklewood on a date which corresponded with the date of her arrival at the Appellant's flat in Cricklewood and suppose that instead of going about with the Appellant she had felt unwell and had remained in the flat but that her presence there was known to a number of people. There would be no pointer to the Appellant: there are many thousands of houses in Cricklewood and to regard a reference to a house in an area where, say, 100,000 people...

To continue reading

Request your trial
178 cases

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT