In a judgment handed down on 20 August 2014 in the case Yeo v Times Newspapers ( EWHC 2853 (QB)) Mr Justice Warby decided that the trial of a defamation action brought against the Sunday Times by senior Conservative MP Tim Yeo will take place without a jury. The Judge dismissed an application by the newspaper’s publisher, Times Newspaper Ltd, for a jury trial. He went on to determine the meaning of the words complained of.
Mr Yeo, the MP for South Suffolk and chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, is suing the newspaper over articles by its Insight investigative team which appeared on June 9 and June 23 last year and online.
The first of the June 9 articles, on Pages 1 and 2, was headlined “Top Tory in new lobbygate row”, with a sub-heading reading “MP coached client before committee grilling”.
The second article on the same date, which appeared on pages 6 and 7, bore the headline “I told him in advance what to say. Ha-ha”.
The June 23 article, headlined “Lobbyist wrote peer’s speech”, appeared on pages 1 and 2. It did not mention Mr Yeo, but paragraph referring to “three lords and a select committee chairman…”, which he says will have been understood to refer to him.
Mr Yeo claims that the June 9 articles, which the parties had agreed should be read together, contained a defamatory factual meaning to the effect that in breach of the rules of the House of Commons he was “prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act, as a paid Parliamentary advocate” in certain ways.
Mr Justice Warby said this was what was known as a “Chase Level 1” meaning – a meaning that he was guilty of wrongdoing, as opposed to a meaning that there were reasonable grounds to suspect him of wrongdoing (Level 2) or reasonable grounds to investigate whether he had engaged in wrongdoing (Level 3) (Chase v News Group Newspapers ( EWCA Civ 1772;  EMLR 11)).
The newspaper denies that the articles are defamatory of Mr Yeo, but also pleads, in the alternative, justification, fair comment and Reynolds privilege.
The newspaper applied for a ruling that the trial should be held with a jury, while Mr Yeo said the trial should be with a judge alone, and applied for a determination of the meanings conveyed by the words of which he complained.
Mr Justice Warby said the issue of whether there would be a trial with a jury fell to be decided under the law as amended by the Defamation Act 2013, which abolished the long-standing right to jury trial.
There were, he said, three factors which not only tended to support the new statutory presumption of trial by judge alone, but also pointed strongly for such an order in this case – the advantage of a reasoned judgment, proportionality, and case management.
There was no doubt that a trial with a jury would be “significantly longer and more costly” than trial by judge alone, he said.
In addition, trial without a jury would mean that early rulings on meaning could save expense and ensure that the case was dealt with expeditiously, as well as affecting the shape of the case and the issues which would have to be tried.
On the meanings issue, Mr Justice Warby held that the articles published on June 9 bore two defamatory meanings.
The first, which was factual, was that Mr Yeo was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act, in a way which was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate who would push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a fee of GBP7,000 a day, and would approach Ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client’s private agenda in return for cash.
The second meaning, which consisted entirely of comment, was that by behaving in the manner referred to in the articles Mr yeo had acted scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest.
Changes made to the online versions of these articles would not affect the meanings readers would take from them.
The June 23 article, the judge said, would convey – to those readers who had read and remembered the 9 June articles – a defamatory factual meaning similar to that of the 9 June articles, namely that Mr Yeo had been selling himself as a Parliamentary advocate for paying clients and had thereby offered to act in a way that was in breach of the rules of the House of Commons.
The same meaning applied to the online version.
Mr Justice Warby also agreed to an application from Mr Yeo, who is being represented on a no-win, no-fee Conditional Fee Agreement, for relief from sanctions following the failure by his solicitors, due to an oversight, to provide the court and other parties with specified information about the funding arrangement by the prescribed method and time. Times Newspapers Ltd had not objected to this application, provided Mr Yeo paid its costs incurred.
This article originally appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.