Defamation – Proving That A Statement Has Been Published

Defamation Of Character

Parsons v Atkinson [2024] EWCH 888 (KB)

Background

In this case, a letter was written about the Claimant and circulated in the small town of Broughton-in-Furness. Within the letter, the Claimant was accused of the following:

  1. Destroying the community in Broughton-in-Furness and the local economy;
  2. Unethical business dealings;
  3. Treating his staff poorly;
  4. Having an affair; and
  5. Exploiting a single woman by providing her with accommodation in return for sex.

Both the Claimant and the Defendant in this case lived in Broughton-in-Furness and had known each other for many years. The Claimant was a successful businessman and landowner and the Defendant at the time was a part-time Watch Manager of the local fire station. The Claimant pursued a claim against the Defendant for publishing a copy of the letter by reading it aloud to four fellow firefighters (Mr Hull, Sir Jardine, Mr Jardine and Ms Armistead) at the fire station. The Defendant denied reading the letter aloud.

One of the elements of a successful defamation claim is establishing that the defamatory comment has been published. The burden is on the Claimant to prove that the statement has been published. In this case, therefore, the Claimant needed to prove that the letter had been read aloud by the Defendant. The difficulty for the Claimant was that he was not present at the fire station on the night in question. He therefore was totally reliant upon what he had been told by third parties.

It was accepted by all that on the evening of 24 November 2020, Mr Hull was sitting in the office at the fire station with the Defendant when Ms Armistead came into the office with a copy of the letter. Sir Jardine and Mr Jardine were also present. Mr Hull, Sir Jardine, and Mr Jardine presented evidence in support of the Claimant’s case. The Defendant and Ms Armistead gave evidence in support of the Defendant’s case.

Mr Hull confirmed that Ms Armistead came into the office at the fire station and handed the letter to the Defendant. Mr Hull confirmed that he did not read the letter and he was only aware of its content because it was read aloud by the Defendant. The Claimant contacted Mr Hull about the letter via WhatsApp on 28 November 2020. He asked Mr Hull if he had any ideas about where the letter came from. There was no mention within these messages of the letter being read aloud. Because of this, the judge was not satisfied that Mr Hull’s evidence was accurate on a balance of probabilities.

Mr Jardine and Sir Jardine both provided statements confirming that the Defendant read the letter aloud. Neither of these witnesses attended Court to give oral evidence and therefore their evidence was not tested. The judge was critical of the Claimant for this and took the view that there was no real reason for the Claimant not to call the Jardine brothers as witnesses.

The Defendant argued that Ms Armistead came into the office and handed him the letter. He read the letter to himself and put it down on the desk. He did not read it aloud.

Ms Armistead also gave evidence in support of the Defendant’s position. She confirmed that she took the letter to the fire station as a “bit of fun”. She went into the office and put the letter on a table. The letter was then read by each of the firefighters in turn. She was clear that the letter was never read aloud by the Defendant.

Ultimately, the judge gave weight to the Defendant and Ms Armistead’s evidence over and above the evidence of Mr Hull and the untested evidence of the Jardine brothers. The judge commented as follows:

I prefer the evidence of the defendant (supported by Ms Armistead) that he did not read aloud the letter to other firefighters as alleged. At any rate, the claimant has not met his burden of proving that the defendant read aloud the letter as alleged. The claimant fails to prove that the defendant published the letter. Accordingly, the libel claim fails.”

Comment

This case is an important reminder that the burden is on the claimant to prove that the statement has been published. If a claimant is unable to prove that the statement has been published by the defendant, ultimately, their claim will fail.

This case is also an important reminder that you do not need to be the author of a defamatory comment to be pursued under the Defamation Act 2013. It is possible to pursue a claim against someone simply because they have published the comments.

How can Nelsons help?Defamatory Statement Letter

Ruby Ashby is a Senior Associate in our expert Dispute Resolution team, specialising in data breach claims, inheritance and Trust disputes and defamation claims.

If you need any advice, please do not hesitate to contact Ruby or another member of the team in Derby, Leicester, or Nottingham on 0800 024 1976 or via our online enquiry form.

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