Simpson v MGN Ltd

Case date: 26/07/2016
Court: Court of Appeal
Area/s of law: Defamation
Barrister/s: Manuel Barca QC | Aidan Eardley

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The Claimant, a professional footballer, issued proceedings for libel over an article published in the Daily Mirror and online in 2012. The claim predated the commencement of the Defamation Act 2013 but the parties agreed to dispense with trial by jury.

At a trial of meaning as a preliminary issue, Warby J held the Article to mean:

“By entering a romantic relationship with the celebrity Tulisa Contostavlos the claimant was unfaithful to his loyal partner Stephanie Ward, with whom he was in a long-term and committed relationship, living with their daughter as a family; he did so despite Ms Ward having sacrificed her legal career to have his children, and being, as he knew, pregnant with their next child; and by doing so he callously destroyed his relationship with Ms Ward and broke up an established family unit which was soon to be joined by the child they were expecting.”

Warby J proceeded to refuse the Defendant permission to amend its defence of justification and entered judgment for the Claimant, because, in his view, the draft amended particulars of justification did not allege, or contain factual assertions capable of supporting findings, that Ms Ward had given up her legal career for the sake of having children with the Claimant, nor that the Claimant, Ms Ward and their daughter were living together as a family at the material time. These were, in his view, components of the defamatory meaning of the Article which would inevitably be held to contribute significantly to the defamatory sting, but which could not be established by proof of the Defendant’s proposed amended particulars.

The Defendant appealed. Permission to appeal was refused in relation to the meaning issue (and the permission application was not renewed) but granted in respect of the decision to strike out the defence and to refuse the Defendant’s amendment application.

On appeal, the Claimant argued that, the Judge having decided to incorporate the “family” and “legal” career elements into the unchallenged meaning, any defence of justification which did not set out to establish the truth of those elements was bound to fail.

Decision (Laws LJ; King LJ; Lindblom LJ)

Appeal allowed.

Laws LJ (with whom the rest of the Court agreed) said that at the core of the case was the proposition that the meaning of a defamatory statement does not necessarily establish the intensity of its sting [21]. Thus, once the meaning has been found, it nevertheless remained open to the Defendant to raise arguments about the intensity of the libel’s sting [17]. The essence of the sting consisted in the assertion of a selfish disruption of the Claimant’s committed family relationship and the extent to which the factors of co-habitation and Ms Ward’s legal career went to this essential sting was a matter upon which reasonable people might disagree. It should therefore be ascertained by the fact-finding tribunal at trial, not determined at an interlocutory hearing on the pleadings [19]-[20].

The Claimant has applied to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court

Manuel Barca QC and Aidan Eardley, instructed by Lewis Silkin LLP, for the Claimant.

The judgment is available here.