Defamation Bill — Commons Reasons

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 23rd April 2013.

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Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Conservative 4:15 pm, 23rd April 2013

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with government Amendment 2B. Initially, I was very sympathetic to the idea of restricting a company's right to sue because of the instances of bullying, which are now well known. I have become slightly more troubled by the restriction which is to be imposed in what I hope will not be impolite to call something of a volte-face by the Government in this respect. I understand the reasoning behind it but I seek from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reassurance about what a company must establish to show that it has been, or is likely to be, caused serious financial loss.

In the well known case of Jameel v Wall Street Journal in 2007, the House of Lords considered, among others, the Derbyshire case. In particular, in his leading speech Lord Bingham said that he was satisfied that it was appropriate for a company not necessarily to prove special damage but to establish that a publication had the tendency to damage. I shall quote from paragraph 26 of his judgment:

"First, the good name of a company, as that of an individual, is a thing of value. A damaging libel may lower its standing in the eyes of the public and even its own staff, make people less ready to deal with it, less willing or less proud to work for it. If this were not so, corporations would not go to the lengths they do to protect and burnish their corporate images. I find nothing repugnant in the notion that this is a value which the law should protect".

He went on to say:

"I do not accept that a publication, if truly damaging to a corporation's commercial reputation, will result in provable financial loss, since the more prompt and public a company's issue of proceedings, and the more diligent its pursuit of a claim, the less the chance that financial loss will actually accrue".

What concerns me a little is that a company that has genuinely been damaged in its reputation will often find it very difficult to surmount this hurdle which is inserted in the Bill when it is not easy to produce by reference to a balance sheet an exact equivocation between the damage to a reputation and the damage to a company. It may be much more subtle than that, yet there is genuine damage to a reputation. Therefore, I would welcome some clarification from the Minister about what a company may need to establish short of producing a balance sheet, nevertheless having some evidence of real damage to the company.

There is a problem with the alternative tort of malicious falsehood in that the offer of a mens rea defence is not available. Of course, malicious falsehood requires proof of malice and is a somewhat unsatisfactory hurdle where a defamation action is, on the face of it, more suitable.

As to the amendment suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, concerning non-natural persons, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Lester. I can add that the courts are currently considering a number of cases where they are patrolling the border, as it were, of the Derbyshire principle and deciding whether, on particular facts, the ratio decidendi of Derbyshire should be applied to a public role or public function having been performed by a particular body. I suggest that it is much better for the law to evolve, as the Minister said, rather than to codify it in this way. Of course, at the moment the courts are generally considering the question of public function in the context of the Human Rights Act and whether the obligations under the convention apply. There are many hybrid cases which are going to make these cases very fact-sensitive, and that is an indication that we should avoid trying to codify.

I strongly oppose Amendment 2D proposed in Motion B2. The initial requirement of seeking the permission of the court is going to add to costs. Largely thanks to the helpful intervention of the CPR-I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in his place-the courts have the flexibility to intervene on questions of meaning. They can strike out the whole or part of a case. In any event, I suggest that there is sufficient flexibility to make this initial hurdle supererogatory. It will be expensive and I fear that it will not in fact achieve what I understand lies behind this amendment, and so I strongly oppose that.