This month the Ministry of Justice released its figures for the number of defamation claims issued in England and Wales in 2019. In this article, we highlight some of the information revealed by these statistics.
The number of defamation claims in 2019 is the highest in the last decade. If we compare 2019 to previous years, there is a 22% increase in issued defamation claims compared to 2018. These statistics follow a 70% surge in defamation claims in 2018 and a 39% rise in 2017.
The volume of defamation claims in 2019 is 127% higher than it was in 2013, despite the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013, which pundits predicted would reduce the number of claims because it imposed a “serious harm” threshold for claimants. Indeed, the Act came into force on 1 January 2014, but over 2014 the volume of defamation claims issued at court rose by 60%.
The percentage of claims that are for defamation in comparison to other types of claims in the Queen’s Bench Division (QBD) of the High Court has also risen significantly, and indeed has more than doubled since 2013. In that year the percentage of QBD claims that were for defamation was 3% but in 2019 defamation claims were 7% of all QBD claims, the highest percentage of QBD claims for defamation in at least a decade. This is a remarkable statistic given that defamation is a specialist area of media and communications law. The QBD also deals with more generic types of disputes, such as debt cases, personal injury, negligence, breaches of contract, breaches of statutory duties, breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998, and various torts.
Head of our Media Disputes team Ryan Dunleavy comments upon the continued increase in the number of defamation claims:
“I am unsurprised by these statistics for defamation claims. They reflect what we are seeing as a department. Media and communications disputes of all types seem to be increasing in regularity, as the amount of information created, collated, stored, used, and published on people and businesses continues to expand, particularly in digital form.
“In the Information Age, where everyone is connected, today’s news and comments are no longer tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. They are permanent records often accessible to anyone who wants to look, unless they are countered, corrected, or removed. In this era, it is more important than ever that redress through the High Court is available and utilised, and that injunctive relief is obtained in cases where claims are necessary.
“Hurdles have been created in recent years for those wishing to bring defamation claims, most notably the introduction of the ‘serious harm’ threshold by the Defamation Act 2013, but also by the removal of conditional fee agreement (ie, “no win, no fee”) success fee recovery from losing defendants for claims issued after 5 April 2019.
“Before this date, success fees were often set at 100% of the original legal fees incurred, which doubled the legal fees claimant lawyers could recover from losing defendants. The removal of their recovery has made CFAs less attractive for claimant defamation lawyers, and therefore less likely to be willing to act for clients with limited financial resources.
“Those significant changes will undoubtedly have had an impact on claimants who wished to bring trivial claims, and made it harder for claimants with modest financial means to fund cases, but as the statistics for 2019 show, the overall volume of defamation claims has continued to rise regardless.
“Technology is being used even more now to communicate because of lockdown and social distancing, so it will be interesting to see what effect this new environment has on the number of defamation claims issued in 2020, when the statistics are released next year.”