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14.03.16

Ex-husband awarded £5,000 damages for Facebook libel

The case of Stocker v Stocker, the first libel trial of 2016, provides a stark warning to those who post defamatory material on social media. In this case the Court held that the claimant had been defamed by his ex-wife and he was awarded £5,000 of damages.

Background

The claimant and defendant were formerly married, have one son together and divorced acrimoniously. The defendant subsequently invited the claimant’s new girlfriend (B) to be a "friend" on Facebook. B accepted.  The defendant then proceeded to write a series of posts on B’s Facebook feed in which she alleged that the claimant (a) had tried to kill her by strangling some 10 years earlier, (b) had threatened her, (c) had been arrested on three occasions, (d) had issues relating to gun ownership and (e) had breached a non-molestation order.  The allegations were visible to 21 individuals with authorised access to the page, in addition to 110 of B’s friends and to their Facebook friends.

Judgment

The court was unimpressed the defendant’s argument that she did not intend anyone else to read the comments and compared her actions to putting comments on an office noticeboard accessible to anybody who wanted to read it.  Mr Justice Mitting held that the postings had been seen by at least three of B’s friends.  The defendant had also rejected B’s offer of discussing the relevant issues in a private telephone conversation.

The court held that the meaning of the various postings included that the claimant had tried to kill the defendant by strangling and that he was a dangerous man to any woman living with him, a clearly defamatory meaning.

The defendant pleaded justification (i.e. that the allegations were true).  In March 2003 there had been a domestic incident in which the claimant had placed his hands tightly around the defendant’s throat. The defendant managed to escape and call the police. However the court found that the claimant’s intention had not been to kill here and Mitting J commented: “I do not believe he was capable, even in temper, of attempted murder.”  The court considered the other allegations, some of which were broadly accurate, for example the claimant had committed common assault, had been arrested three times and had been made subject to a non-molestation order, however the defendant was unable to justify the meaning of the allegations, specifically that the claimant was a dangerous man.

Mitting J concluded that the claimant’s reputation had been damaged and, although there were only a small number of recipients of the publication, he was entitled to damages of £5,000.  The claimant decided not to accept the award of damages (as he was entitled to do).  However, the Defendant has been ordered to pay his legal costs, which are believed to be in the region of £200,000.

Comment

This case highlights the dangers and possible consequences of posting defamatory material on a website such as Facebook, even when the allegations had been viewed by a relatively small number of people.  Technological ignorance and claiming there was no intention for anyone to read the comments will be no defence.  The Judge compared the actions of the defendant to sending a defamatory letter to a company without marking it private.

Click here for information on how Brett Wilson LLP defamation solicitors can assist you if you have had defamatory material posted about you.


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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.


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