Katie Hopkins has been ordered to pay £24,000 in damages together with costs following tweets about food blogger and writer Jack Munroe.
The judgment last week in Jack Monroe v Katie Hopkins  EWHC 433 QB includes clarification as to the meaning of 'serious harm'.
Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013 provides that 'a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant'. As such it isn't enough for a claimant to assert and prove a defamatory meaning. To succeed with an action, a claimant must go further, and prove actual serious harm to reputation, or at least the likelihood of that.
We have been waiting for judicial guidance as to what the serious harm test requires - it had been anticipated that it would stand as a high threshold, making defamation claims more difficult to bring
In Munroe, the court held that tweets made by Katie Hopkins about Jack Munroe were defamatory. The 'serious harm' test was satisfied, it was said, 'on the straightforward basis that the tweets complained of have a tendency to cause harm to this claimant's reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious for her'.
What does this mean for libel claims?
In the internet age and that of social media, information can be spread very widely, instantaneously. Damage to reputation can happen quickly. It is important to think carefully before voicing an opinion. In Munroe, Twitter was referred to as the 'wild west,' but the court judgment illustrates that Twitter publications, and by extension publications on other forms of social media, will be treated no differently to any other publication when applying the principles set out in the Defamation Act.
The following steps need to be carefully considered in relation to libel claims:
- pre-action correspondence needs to be carefully crafted to properly advance or respond to a claim
- prior to issuing a libel claim, steps need to be taken to identify evidence of serious harm
- defendants need to give serious consideration to protecting themselves by issuing appropriate and swift apologies
- whichever side you are on, you must take steps to preserve material that may become discloseable, including the tweet or other publication itself
Libel law continues to develop in an effort to keep a pace with an ever changing world, technological advances and the evolving ways in which we all communicate. We all now are, or can be, a 'publisher' at the touch of a button. Caution is the order of the day, for everyone, including our younger generations who may not appreciate the implications of publications across social media.
If you are in any doubt about threatened or actual libel proceedings, seek legal advice.