Legal update: Trial by jury in defamation claims - the exception rather than the rule

2 September 2014

Tim Yeo v Times Newspapers Ltd [2014] EWHC 2853 (QB)

This case concerned a libel action brought by the claimant Tim Yeo MP (Y) against the defendant, The Times Newspapers Ltd (T).

Y had been chairman of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Two of T's investigative journalists had met with Y posing as representatives for a solar energy company offering him consultancy work. On 9 June 2013, T published an article entitled "Top Tory in new Lobbygate row" which described Y as "the latest politician to be implicated in a "Westminster for sale" scandal". A further article inside the newspaper stated that, "The chairman of a Commons committee has boasted of how he can promote businesses in which he has an interest". On 23 June 2013, the newspaper published an article which did not mention Y by name but referred to an investigation by the parliamentary authorities of, "three lords and a select committee chairman...selling themselves as parliamentary advocates for paying clients". Those articles were also published in the newspaper's online versions.

Y issued proceedings against T for libel. As a result of an assistant solicitor's mistake, notice of Y's funding arrangement was served on T later than required.

T contended that the court should conduct a jury trial given Y's identity and status and the significant subject matter of the trial. Y submitted that trial by judge was appropriate, and that the defamatory meaning of the words complained of in the published articles should be determined as a preliminary issue. He applied for relief from sanction arising from his failure to serve the notice of funding in time.

Appropriate mode of trial

Section 11 of the Defamation Act 2013 meant that trial by jury for libel and slander would be the exception rather than the rule. In this case, the Court held that T had not identified any skills, knowledge, aptitudes or other attributes likely to be possessed by a jury which would make it better equipped than a judge to grapple with the issues that needed to be tried. Further, there was a real risk that a jury verdict would be unclear or misunderstood.

The Court clarified that where the subject-matter of a libel case was political it was especially desirable that the court's judgment explained what conclusions it had reached and why. Moreover, in considerable of the overriding objective, a trial by jury would invariably take longer and be more costly than a trial without a jury.

Words complained of

The court found that the articles published on 9 June 2013 bore the defamatory meanings that Y:

  1. was prepared to act, and had offered himself as willing to act, in a way that was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons by acting as a paid Parliamentary advocate who would push for new laws to benefit the business of a client for a fee of £7,000 a day, and approach ministers, civil servants and other MPs to promote a client's private agenda in return for cash; and
  2. by behaving in the manner referred to in the articles had acted scandalously, and shown willing to abuse his position in Parliament to further his own financial and business interests in preference to the public interest.

Further, to such readers of the June 23 article as had read and remembered the June 9 articles, the later article would convey a defamatory factual meaning similar to that of the earlier articles.

Late filing of notice of funding

It was held that the impact of the late filing of the notice of funding on the efficient and proportionate conduct of litigation was negligible.

The court commented that relief from sanctions should not be granted lightly, but the breach in the instant case had not resulted from a deliberate decision but from an error by an assistant solicitor which was promptly rectified once noticed.

By Katie Allard, Paralegal, Dispute Resolution

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