In a long awaited judgment (by media lawyers at least), the Court of Appeal has handed down its judgment in the case of Lachaux, the first time the appellant court has considered the new test of serious harm, introduced by the Defamation Act 2013.
Section 1(1) of the 2013 Act specified that "a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant". This provision was widely expected to reduce the number of defamation claims and since introduction, has been the subject of lively debate.
While not quite the watershed decision some were expecting, the case has produced clarity on the following points:
1. The threshold has been raised from the pre 2013 Act test of substantiality to "seriousness: no less, no more but equally no more, no less". "Serious", according to the Court, "means what it says".
2. Serious harm can be inferred from the meaning of the words complained of and there is no need to present evidence at an early interim hearing. Indeed, the Court of Appeal directed that the courts should be slow to direct preliminary hearings which will incur substantial time and cost when that will be duplicated at trial.
3. However a defendant can still make an application for strike out and or summary judgment to dispose of unmeritous claims at an early stage.
4. There continues to be a presumption in libel cases that the claimant has suffered loss, unlike in slander where loss has to be proven.
5. The Court did not comment on the higher test for bodies trading for profit, who are required to show that they have suffered, or are likely to suffer, serious financial loss.
The Court would not accept "that the labours of Parliament have produced but a mouse". Perhaps not, but not a claim eating lion either.
The case represents the first opportunity that the Court of Appeal has had to consider the meaning and effect of s.1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013.