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Defamation: judge backs publisher over article meaning

Out-Law News | 06 Mar 2020 | 9:27 am | 2 min. read

Associated Newspapers has won the first round of a legal battle with property owners over the meaning of an article published on Mail Online.

The property owners have sued the publisher in defamation, and at a trial of preliminary issues before the High Court, Mr Justice Nicol determined the meaning of the article complained of.

According to the judgment, the article reported that a property in London had been found to have 35 people living in it following a raid by local council officials and the police. The property had been rented out and the article said the council was seeking to determine who the landlord was. The property is owned by two brothers and their mother. The article made reference to two other properties where the mother and her estranged husband live separately, as well as to one of the brothers' apparent luxury lifestyle as detailed on Facebook.

The property owners and Associated Newspapers were in disagreement over the meaning of the article published.

The property owners claimed that the natural and ordinary meaning of the article was 'that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that [they] had illegally let their property to up to 35 people, and profited thereby, living an extravagant and luxury lifestyle on the proceeds of their illegality and the squalid conditions and suffering of their tenants'.

However, Mr Justice Nicol did not accept the property owners' assessment of the article's meaning. He accepted Associated Newspapers' submission instead.

The judge found that the meaning of the article was that '[the two brothers and mother] are the owners of a house which had been illegally rented out to 35 tenants who had been found living in cramped and squalid conditions following a raid on the property by police and officers from Brent Council and there are grounds to investigate whether they knowingly permitted the property to be sublet in this manner and therefore should be prosecuted for housing law offences'.

Mr Justice Nicol reached his decision on the article's meaning after considering the article as a whole. He referred to a range of factors that persuaded him to favour Associated Newspaper's interpretation. This included the fact that the article gave a full account of the property owners' case. The judge also considered that the article made clear that the council's investigation was still in progress, and said a reference made to 'landlord' in the article would not be understood as a reference to the brothers and their mother.

Media law expert Imogen Allen-Back of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the case is significant because it is a rare example of the High Court upholding a so-called 'Chase level 3' meaning.

'Chase levels' is a term derived from a 2002 ruling by the Court of Appeal in London. It relates to three types of defamatory allegation. The first of these allegations is that the claimant is guilty of the act, the second is that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the claimant is guilty of the act, and the third is that there are grounds to investigate whether the claimant has committed the act.

"The finding is significant because it is plainly easier for a defendant wishing to rely on a defence of truth to prove that there are grounds to investigate that a claimant has committed an offence, rather than having to prove guilt or reasonable grounds to suspect," said Allen-Back.