Serious harm must be shown to result in a successful defamation claim

The Supreme Court has handed down a landmark judgement which clarifies the test on defamation.

The claimant, Mr Lachaux, issued proceedings against the Independent, Evening Standard and The I after they included a number of articles (published in 2014) containing allegations about his marriage and family life (all denied by him) which came to light as part of a child custody dispute.

The newspapers defended the claims on the basis that the articles did not meet the threshold of causing or being likely to cause serious harm required under Section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013. The case was heard by the Court of Appeal in September 2017 who held that, given the severity of the published statements, a clear inference could be drawn that serious harm to Mr Lachaux’s reputation had been caused, especially given the size of the newspapers’ audience, and Mr Lachaux’s personal and professional reputation.

Lord Sumption, one of the five Supreme Court Judges, found that there was no error in the test applied by the Court of Appeal, confirming that the Court must look at the words used and the impact of those words on the reader when determining whether serious harm had or was likely to have been caused. Therefore, the previous decision by the Court of Appeal that the publications were defamatory and had caused Mr Lachaux harm were upheld.

This decision confirms that Claimants can no longer just rely on the characteristics of or words within the statement to show that it is likely to cause harm. The Court must also look at the impact of the supposed defamatory words used on those to whom they were communicated. This undoubtedly creates a higher threshold when proving a claim of defamation.

by Cathryn Culverhouse, solicitor at city law firm DMH Stallard

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