On Thursday 1 July 2021, the High Court handed down judgment in the long-running libel action of Lachaux v Independent Print Limited & Others  EWHC 1797 (QB).
Mr Justice Nicklin has dismissed the Defendants’ public interest defence and ordered the publishers of The Independent, The i and the Evening Standard newspapers to pay £120,000 in libel damages to aerospace engineer Bruno Lachaux after falsely alleging he had, amongst other things, been violent, abusive and controlling towards his ex-wife, that he had callously and without justification taken their son away from her, and that he had falsely accused his ex-wife of abducting their son.
In delivering a highly critical verdict on the failings of both publishers to ensure basic journalistic standards were upheld, Mr Justice Nicklin gave important guidance on the practical application of the public interest defence to defamation claims under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013.
The Judge found that in order to be able to rely on the public interest defence, it was incumbent upon the Defendant newspapers to verify the allegations in relation to Bruno Lachaux in light of their gravity. The subject of particular criticism was the failure of any of the journalists and editors to approach him for comment and fairly represent his response in the articles.
Mr Justice Nicklin stated:
“I have no hesitation in finding that it was not in the public interest to publish [Articles], which contained allegations that were seriously defamatory of the Claimant, without having given him an opportunity to respond to them. The decision not to contact the Claimant was not a result of any careful editorial consideration, it was a mistake”.
As the burden of establishing a public interest defence lies upon the publisher, Mr Justice Nicklin recommended that, in line with journalists’ codes of practice, a contemporaneous audit trail of the decisions which led to publication should be maintained, stating:
“ …journalists and those in professional publishing organisations should be able to demonstrate, not only that they reasonably believed the publication would be in the public interest, but also how and with whom this was established at the time…”
Earlier in these proceedings, following a trial of preliminary issues, the Supreme Court issued a landmark libel judgment clarifying the requirement of serious harm brought in by the Defamation Act 2013, endorsing the decisions of both the High Court and Court of Appeal that Bruno Lachaux had suffered serious harm to his reputation as a result of the highly defamatory articles.
Having determined the publishers were liable for defaming Bruno Lachaux, Mr Justice Nicklin awarded damages of £50,000 in respect of The Independent and The i articles and £70,000 for the Evening Standard article, reflecting the severity of the allegations, the extent of publication and the serious harm caused to Mr Lachaux’s reputation.
Daniel Taylor of Taylor Hampton solicitors for Bruno Lachaux said:
“The Judge has conducted an extensive evaluation of the circumstances which led to the publication of the defamatory articles. He has found that the Defendant Newspapers failed to demonstrate that a belief that publication of the articles was in the public interest was reasonable. The more serious the allegation, the more important it is to provide the subject with a proper opportunity to respond”.
Bruno Lachaux was represented by Daniel Taylor and Megan O’Boyle of Taylor Hampton Solicitors Limited and by Counsel Adrienne Page QC and Godwin Busuttil of 5RB.