There have been a number of reports today based on some research by Sweet & Maxwell into defamation cases. The Guardian headline is “Rise in defamation cases involving blogs and Twitter” while the “Independent” tells readers “Online libel cases double“. This does not give the full picture.
The figures are curious and their precise provenance unclear. The “doubling” in the number of cases is said to be from 7 to 16 – hardly a significant volume of litigation. The reports also state that the number of defamation cases has increased “up 4% to 86 compared to 83 cases the year before” and that there has been a big drop in “reported defamation cases involving celebrities, down 59% from 22 in 2009/10 to just nine in 2010/11”
These figures are difficult to assess. It may be that the evidence concerning “Twitter and Blogs” and “celebrities” has been obtained by examining issued claim forms but it difficult to know how accurate they are. Almost every “media” defamation case now includes a claim for online publication – and, in some cases, articles are published only online – these are not cases involving “Twitter and Blogs”. The “Guardian” mentions the “Interpal” case – which concerned a website publication by the “Sunday Express” but no “social media”. We are only aware of a handful of cases in which the only claim being made concerns Twitter, Facebook or a blogpost.
It remains that case that libel actions arising out of publication on Twitter or on blogs are exceedingly rare – even if the figures mentioned are correct they represent 10% of all libel actions and relate to a miniscule percentage of the 368 billion items shared on Facebook, the 52 billion tweets and 330 million blog posts every year (see our post on “Social Media Use“). The chances of being sued as a result of a something put on Facebook, a tweet or blog post are very very small indeed.
The reference to “reported” cases (meaning, presumably, ones where public judgments are available) is also not straightforward – as some cases have a number of public judgments whereas others move smoothly (or not so smoothly) to settlement without any such judgments being handed down.
However, the actual numbers of defamation claims issued in the High Court are publicly available from the Ministry of Justice – in their annual “Judicial Statistics” publication. The statistics for 2010 (published in June 2011) show that the total number of defamation claims issued in that year was 158, a 47% decline from the 298 claims issued in 2009.
There may be 9 more cases against Twitter and blogs in 2010-2011 but, overall, there has been a very substantial decrease in the number of new defamation claims issued in the English courts.
The issued claims statistics can be found in this table of defamation (and other) claims over the past 20 years – provided to us by Jaron Lewis of media solicitors RPC.
|Year||Writs issuedin London (QB)||Defamation Writs Issued in London||% of all London (QB)Writs issued||£15-50k||£>50k||No value stated|
|1991||114,904||Not available||Not available|
|1990||127,082||Not available||Not available|
Lies, dammed lies and statistics is all I can say.