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11.06.17

Defamation cases: Number of defamation claims issued at a record low

The Ministry of Justice has published annual statistics which further suggest that London's reputation as the 'libel capital of the world' might be undeserved.  The 2016 figures show that only 112 claims were issued in the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) in London (all defamation claims must be issued in the High Court; the vast majority of these are issued in the RCJ).  This is the lowest number recorded over three decades-worth of record-keeping.

The figure highlights the relative rarity of defamation claims.  In the same period a total of 4,123 claims were issued in the Queen's Bench Division of the RCJ.  Thus, defamation claims accounted for only 3% of claims issued.  More than half of the libel claims were valued at less than £50,000. The rarity is even more stark when a looking at the county court statistics for the same period: 1.8 million claims were issued.

As with civil claims generally, only a very small number of defamation claims issued result in a trial. The majority are settled and a minority are the subject of 'strike-out' or summary judgment applications. In 2016 there were only eight libel trials (up from seven in 2016).  None involved the national press.  The number of trials heard in 2017 is likely to be a similar number.

Some commentators have suggested that the number of claims has fallen as a result of the implementation of the Defamation Act 2013. The Act introduced a 'serious harm' threshold whereby claimants must show that a publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to reputation (additionally corporate claimants must show serious financial loss or the likelihood thereof).  However, the downward trend is a long-term one that predates the inception of the Act. A more likely explanation is that prospective claimants are put off by the cost and cost-risk of bringing proceedings, together with the risk of a claim being struck out if the Court deemed it trivial, which the courts have been increasingly willing to do since the decision in Jameel (Yousef) v Dow Jones & Co. Inc [2005] EWCA Civ 75.  It is arguable that the 'serious harm' test in the Act has done little more than formalise a filtering system that already existed and was already deterring trivial claims.


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