In the case of Raymond Russell Bewry v (1) Reed Elsevier UK Ltd (t/a LexisNexis) (2) Reed Business Information Ltd (t/a Community Care Inform) (2013) the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice allowed an extension of the time limit to bring a claim for libel under section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980.
The first respondent operates a subscription-based website which gives users access to legal materials. The second respondent also operates a subscription-based website which provides resources to professionals working with children and families. A preview of some material is also made available to non-subscribers.
The relevant material in this case was a report relating to judicial review proceedings concerning the applicant, a foster carer, and whether a local authority should have consulted him when deciding to move two children from his care. A preview of the report appeared on the websites, stating that there were concerns about the applicant’s “inappropriate behaviour”. However, the full report was only available to subscription holders.
In October 2011, almost a year after the report was published on the respondents’ websites the applicant became aware of its existence and contacted the respondents immediately. The applicant was concerned that the inferential meaning of the words “inappropriate behaviour” was that he was a paedophile. The second respondent removed the report from its website straight away; however the report remained on the first respondent’s site.
In May 2012, following extensive discussions with the applicant, the first respondent published an amended report, stating that any embarrassment caused to the applicant was regrettable. However, the applicant was not satisfied with these steps and, in February 2013, instructed his solicitor to commence proceedings against the two website operators.
The Limitation Act 1980
Under the Limitation Action 1980 (the Act), the applicable limitation for defamation is one year from the date of accrual of the claim, which in libel claims accrued at the time of publication.
Under section 32 of the Act, the strict limitation period can be disapplied. The applicant therefore applied to extend the limitation period in order to bring a libel claim against the respondents.
The respondents applied to strike out the claim on the grounds of Jameel abuse.
The application was allowed.
In reaching his decision, Judge Moloney QC stated that it was convenient to look at section 32 of the Act as a checklist. Section 32A(2) requires the court to have regard to all the circumstances of the case and in particular to the length of the delay and the reasons for the delay.
In this case, the applicant was not aware until almost a year later that the articles had been published, which was reasonable considering that the reports were only available on subscription. Further, the subsequent period of delay was due to time in negotiations. Whilst these dragged on for over a year, it was true to say that the applicant never turned his back on the process.Judge Moloney held therefore that the applicant had acted reasonably and that it was equitable in the circumstances to allow the extension.
This case demonstrates the court’s willingness to extend limitation periods in libel cases where a party has acted reasonably and promptly upon learning of the offending material. It will be welcomed if the courts do not penalise those parties that make honest attempts at settling disputes before turning to litigation.