The High Court has given judgment in a case involving defamatory material posted on the internet and twitter, and examined how damages should be awarded in such cases. In Cruddas v Adams [2013] EWHC 145 (QB), a claim was brought by Mr Cruddas (the Claimant) against a blogger named Mr Adams (the Defendant). The Claimant is a philanthropist and public figure, and the former Treasurer of the Conservative Party.

In March 2012, several newspaper articles were published about the Claimant, based on excerpts of conversations between the Claimant and undercover journalists. The articles alleged that the Claimant illegally offered to provide introductions to high-ranking UK politicians, including the Prime Minister, in exchange for donations to his political party. Initially the newspaper was unwilling to release the interviews in full; however, after doing so several months later, it became apparent that the Claimant had not made the alleged illegal offers and was not guilty of any wrongdoing. A separate action by the Claimant against the newspaper for libel and malicious falsehood is to be heard in June.

Alongside the original newspaper article, there was also published an article by the Defendant about the Claimant, entitled “Rotten to the Core” which made similar allegations and claimed credit as being the original source of the story. For months afterwards, the Defendant ran a campaign against the Claimant “taunting and harassing him” using blogs, tweets, publicity stunts and television interviews. One example was an open letter he posted on 25 March 2012 which stated “I think you are a criminal and, as I am repeatedly tweeting… people like you have absolutely no place in public life”.  The Defendant also failed to tweet or post developments which undermined his claims, such as a letter from the Police stating there was clearly no evidence of any criminal conduct by the Claimant.

The Claimant subsequently brought an action against the Defendant for defamation. Interestingly, it emerged the Defendant had never actually seen the interview upon which his defamatory allegations were supposed to have been based. Upon reading it in November, he decided not to enter a defence against the claim and the Claimant obtained default judgment. Further, in January 2013 the Defendant apologised to the Claimant and withdrew his allegations of criminality.

Damages

The Court recorded that the Defendant’s allegations had been false, and that the Claimant was entitled to have his reputation vindicated. To some extent this would be achieved by the Court’s findings; however, it was also acknowledged that, for many observers, the Court’s comments would mean less than the answer to the question “how much did he get?”

The purpose of a damages award in a defamation claim is to: (i) compensate for injury to reputation; (ii) convince bystanders of the baselessness of the charge; and (ii) provide “an element of solatium”. However, the Court acknowledged that damages were not designed to be punitive, and should serve only to compensate the Claimant. In order to reach an appropriate sum, a court can find a range, within which any sum is reasonable. The parties’ conduct can be taken into account when finally deciding upon a figure within that range.

In the present case, the Defendant’s allegations had gone right to the core of the Claimant’s reputation, and he had conducted the litigation in a way which aggravated the allegations at every turn. The Court was not willing to engage in the rather artificial exercise of itemising damages for each publication, and decided a single sum in settlement of all claims was more appropriate. Here the Defendant was “an individual with limited resources”, although the Court also stated that “the personal means of the parties are irrelevant to an award of compensatory damages”. Consequently damages to the sum of £45,000 were awarded.

The full text of the judgment can be found at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2013/145.html