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01.11.2016

UK: First practical application of the new public interest defence

by Gianna Iacino
On 27 July 2016, the England and Wales High Court decided a libel case based on the new public interest defence, placing an emphasis on whether the defendant “reasonably believed” the matter was in the public interest (Case no.: HQ15D01507).

A young woman, suffering from bi-polar disorder had a brief relationship with the plaintiff. In December 2012, she accused him of rape. The police questioned him, but he was never charged with the crime. A few month later, in August 2013, the plaintiff brought an action against the young woman for false rape allegations with intent to pervert the course of justice. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) took over the prosecution against the young woman, who committed suicide a few days before her trial. The young woman’s father, the defendant in this case, believed that there had not been enough evidence to prosecute his daughter and that the CPS did not properly consider her vulnerable state before proceeding against her. He wanted an investigation into the role of the CPS in his daughter’s suicide. Therefore, he wrote an article, and issued and authorized the issue of press statements in several newspapers and TV broadcasts, in which he expressed that his daughter had in fact been raped and was therefore, falsely prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. Due to these publications, the plaintiff (the alleged rapist) brought a libel action against the defendant (the alleged rape victim’s father).

To determine, whether the father is liable, the Court had to determine whether the plaintiff was referred to by the publications complained of, if there was a defamatory meaning converged by the words for which the defendant is responsible, and whether the publication of the statements caused serious harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. According to the Court, these requirements were fulfilled for two of the publications. In a second step, the Court had to determine whether the defendant could rely on the public interest defence, which it affirmed.

The Court decided that the publications concerned a matter of public interest. However, this was not the dispute of the case. Indeed, according to the Court, it only matters, whether the defendant “reasonably believed that the publication of the particular statements was in the public interest”. The Court stated that it considers a belief reasonable “only if it is one arrived at after conducting such enquiries and checks as it is reasonable to expect of the particular defendant in all the circumstances of the case.” Considering that the defendant is not a journalist, but rather a grieving father who is the source of the information, the necessary checks and enquiries cannot be expected of him. The Court concluded that the defendant reasonably believed to raise an issue of public importance.

Gianna Iacino, LL.M., is a Research Associate at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brüssel

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The ruling is available in English language here.



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