Inforrm reported on a large number of defamation cases from around the world in 2020. Following my widely read posts on 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 defamation cases, this is my personal selection of the most legally and factually interesting cases from England, Australia and Canada from the past year.
Please add, by way of comments, cases from other jurisdictions which you think should be added.
- Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd; Nationwide News Pty Limited; Australian News Channel Pty Ltd v Voller  HCA 27
The controversial finding of the majority of the High Court of Australia that news organisations were publishers of third-party comments on their Facebook pages.
Mr Voller brought defamation proceedings against a series of media organisations alleging that each of the applicants became a publisher of any third party comment on its Facebook once it was posted an read by another user. He was successful at first instance and the successive appeals against the finding was rejected. The position was summarised as follows
“each appellant intentionally took a platform provided by another entity, Facebook, created and administered a public Facebook page, and posted content on that page. The creation of the public Facebook page, and the posting of content on that page, encouraged and facilitated publication of comments from third parties. The appellants were thereby publishers of the third-party comments” .
Inforrm had a post about the decision.
The Australian Government are already proposing to reverse the effect of this decision by statute – see the Inforrm post here.
- Lachaux v Independent Print Limited  EWHC 1797 (QB)
In the latest instalment in the long running saga of the Lachaux libel litigation, Mr Justice Nicklin 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. The defendants falsely alleged 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.
The Judge provided important commentary on the standards to be upheld by defendants seeking to establish the public interest defence to what would otherwise be considered defamatory coverage. He said:
“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 …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…”
The saga has not yet concluded. The defendants have been granted permission to appeal and their appeal will be heard by the Court of Appeal on 12 April 2022.
3. Hijazi v Yaxley-Lennon EWHC 2008 (QB)
A case concerning a short altercation between two pupils on the playing field of Almondbury Community School in Huddersfield. A video was taken of the incident which subsequently “went viral”, just after the perpetrator of the altercation was expelled from school. He later received a caution for common assault for the incident.
On 28 and 29 November 2018 Mr Yaxley-Lennon used his Facebook account to post two videos of himself giving his opinion on the incident. He suggested, contrary to narratives emerging from media coverage of the altercation, that some of the sympathy toward Mr Hijazi (the claimant) were undeserved as he had committed similar violence.
Both videos were found to be defamatory of Mr Hijazi
In finding for the claimant after the substantive trial, Mr Justice Nicklin stated:
“The Defendant’s allegations against the Claimant were very serious and were published widely. The Defendant has admitted that their publication has caused serious harm to the Claimant’s reputation. The consequences to the Claimant have been particularly severe. Although it was media attention on the Viral Video that first propelled the Claimant (and Bailey McLaren) into the glare of publicity, overwhelmingly that coverage (rightly) portrayed the Claimant as the victim in the Playing Field Incident. The Defendant’s contribution to this media frenzy was a deliberate effort to portray the Claimant as being, far from an innocent victim, but in fact a violent aggressor. Worse, the language used in the First and Second Videos was calculated to inflame the situation. As was entirely predictable, the Claimant then became the target of abuse which ultimately led to him and his family having to leave their home, and the Claimant to have to abandon his education. The Defendant is responsible for this harm, some of the scars of which, particularly the impact on the Claimant’s education, are likely last for many years, if not a lifetime.”
There was an Inforrm Case Comment
4. Abramovich v Harpercollins Publishers Ltd & Anor  EWHC 3154 (QB)
Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich succeeded at a preliminary issue trial on meaning. Mrs Justice Tipples found that all nine of the meanings of allegations relating to Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC “on the directions of President Putin and the Kremlin” were defamatory.
The case concerned a claim of defamation against Catherine Belton and publisher Harper Collins of allegations made in the her book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On The West.
Known as the “Wagatha Christie litigation” this concerned a claim of defamation brought by Rebekah Vardy against Coleen Rooney. The case stems from series of statements published by the defendant on her public Instagram account. Mr Justice Warby, previously found that the statements meant:
“Over a period of years Ms Vardy had regularly and frequently abused her status as a trusted follower of Ms Rooney’s personal Instagram account by secretly informing The Sun newspaper of Ms Rooney’s private posts and stories, thereby making public without Ms Rooney’s permission a great deal of information about Ms Rooney, her friends and family which she did not want made public.”
This part of the litigation concerns the claimants attempts to strike out and claim summary judgment. A number of paragraphs of the Amended Defence were struck out in relation to allegations of the claimants’ publicity seeking behaviour.
- Nettle v Cruse  FCA 93
Sydney based plastic surgeon Dr Nettle refused to operate on Ms Cruse. Cruse posted comments which were highly defamatory of Dr Nettle throughout 2018. This included creating a website in the URL of Dr Nettle’s name. Allegations ranged from failing to keep records confidential to performing unauthorised surgeries. The court found in Dr Nettles favour concluding:
“Dr Nettle has proved that he was defamed by Ms Cruse in four publications in 2018. Judgment will be entered for Dr Nettle with damages payable by Ms Cruse assessed at $450,000. Injunctions restraining Ms Cruse from republishing the four impugned publications, or the imputations which have been found to be conveyed by them, will be made permanent. Ms Cruse will also be ordered to pay Dr Nettle’s costs of the proceeding.”
- Webb v Jones  EWHC 1618 (QB)
A libel claim arising from Facebook postings. The claimant failed to comply with the pre-action protocol and failed to provide particulars of publication context in her pleading until three months after service of the Claim Form. The defendant’s application for strike out in this case was successful. The case provides useful guidance on the procedural niceties of conducting a libel claim. Inforrm has a case comment.
- Corbyn v Millett  EWCA Civ 567
The respondent issued defamation proceedings against Jeremy Corbyn in respect of an interview he gave on the Andrew Marr Show in which he had referred to people in the audience as “Zionists” who “don’t understand English irony”. Saini J held that this made a defamatory allegation of fact. Mr Corbyn, appealed. Warby LJ held that the judge did not err in finding that the words ‘disruptive’ and ‘abusive’ were statements of fact? The appellant was “presenting viewers with a factual narrative”. He also held that the Judge’s approach to ‘bare comment’ had been correct and there was no error of law in the finding that imputation were defamatory at common law?
- Greenstein v Campaign Against Antisemitism  EWCA Civ 1006
A libel claim against the Campaign Against Antisemitism after the Campaign referred to Greenstein in a series of five articles published on its website. The appeal was against an order striking out particulars of malice and judgment entered into in favour of the Campaign. In upholding the first instance decision, Dingemans LJ reiterated the principles to finding malice from Horrocks v Lowe  AC 135.
- Chak v Levant, 2021 ABQB 946
Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant, was ordered to pay damages of $60,000, following Leonard J finding he defamed a political science professor and former Liberal candidate during a 2014 Sun News broadcast. Levant claimed Farhan Chak “shot up” a nightclub when he was 19 years old.
Suneet Sharma is a junior legal professional with a particular interest and experience in media, information and privacy law. He is the editor of The Privacy Perspective blog.