News: Online defamation cases “double”, defamation claims decline by 47%

26 08 2011

There have been a number of reports today based on some research by Sweet & Maxwell into defamation cases.  The Guardian headline is “Rise in defamation cases involving blogs and Twitter” while the “Independent” tells readers “Online libel cases double“.  This does not give the full picture.

The figures are curious and their precise provenance unclear.  The “doubling” in the number of cases is said to be from 7 to 16 – hardly a significant volume of litigation.   The reports also state that the number of defamation cases has increased “up 4% to 86 compared to 83 cases the year before” and that there has been a big drop in “reported defamation cases involving celebrities, down 59% from 22 in 2009/10 to just nine in 2010/11

These figures are difficult to assess.  It may be that the evidence concerning “Twitter and Blogs” and “celebrities” has been obtained by examining issued claim forms but it difficult to know how accurate they are.  Almost every “media” defamation case now includes a claim for online publication – and, in some cases, articles are published only online – these are not cases involving “Twitter and Blogs”.  The “Guardian” mentions the “Interpal” case – which concerned a website publication by the “Sunday Express” but no “social media”.  We are only aware of a handful of cases in which the only claim being made concerns Twitter, Facebook or a blogpost.

It remains that case that libel actions arising out of publication on Twitter or on blogs are exceedingly rare – even if the figures mentioned are correct they represent 10% of all libel actions and relate to a miniscule percentage of the 368 billion items shared on Facebook, the 52 billion tweets and 330 million blog posts every year (see our post on “Social Media Use“).   The chances of being sued as a result of a something put on Facebook, a tweet or blog post are very very small indeed.

The reference to “reported” cases (meaning, presumably, ones where public judgments are available) is also not straightforward  – as some cases have a number of public judgments whereas others move smoothly (or not so smoothly) to settlement without any such judgments being handed down.

However, the actual numbers of defamation claims issued in the High Court are publicly available from the Ministry of Justice – in their annual “Judicial Statistics” publication.  The statistics for 2010 (published in June 2011) show that the total number of defamation claims issued in that year was 158, a 47% decline from the 298 claims issued in 2009.

There may be 9 more cases against Twitter and blogs in 2010-2011 but, overall, there has been a very substantial decrease in the number of new defamation claims issued in the English courts.

The issued claims statistics can be found in this table of defamation (and other) claims  over the past 20 years – provided to us by Jaron Lewis of media solicitors RPC.

 Defamation Actions

Year Writs issuedin London (QB) Defamation Writs Issued in London % of all London (QB)Writs issued £15-50k £>50k No value stated
2010 4,864 158 3.24 27 47 84
2009 5,694 298 5.23 52 62 184
2008 5,173 259 5.00 43 77 139
2007 4,794 233 4.86 43 45 145
2006 4,246 213 5.02 24 39 150
2005 3,841 252 6.56 43 70 139
2004 4,292 267 6.22 30 31 206
2003 3,514 190 5.41 22 15 153
2002 4,394 128 2.91 1 1 126
2001 5,122 220 4.30
2000 5,599 241 4.3
1999 10,317 236 2.29
1998 21,684 379 1.75
1997 23,411 452 1.93
1996 29,834 201 0.67
1995 31,737 560 1.76
1994 37,450 418 1.12
1993 56,567 336 0.59
1992 83,852 337 0.4
1991 114,904 Not available Not available
1990 127,082 Not available Not available
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4 responses

29 08 2011
Azrael (@4Q2x)

Lies, dammed lies and statistics is all I can say.

30 08 2011
Law and Media Round Up – 30 August 2011 « Inforrm's Blog

[...] have already posted about the misleading reporting of statistics concerning a “doubling of online defamation [...]

3 05 2012
The trouble with counting defamation cases | Media law and ethics

[...] example, in August 2011 the Inforrm blog took a Sweet and Maxwell report to task for its statistics on the number of online defamation cases, arguing “the figures are [...]

4 09 2012
Misreporting defamation research: no “drop in cases” and no Leveson effect « Inforrm's Blog

[...] readers of this blog will recall the doubts we expressed about the usefulness of the Sweet & Maxwell research published this time last year – on [...]

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