Case Law: Cruddas v Adams, Damages of £45,000 for a blog and Twitter Libel

6 02 2013

CruddasIn a judgment handed down on 4 February 2013 ([2013] EWHC 145 (QB)) Mr Justice Eady awarded the former Conservative Party treasurer, Peter Cruddas, defamation damages of £45,000 in respect of 9 blogs and 12 tweets by published by lobbyist Mark Adams.

Background

On 25 March 2012, the Sunday Times published a series of articles following a covertly recorded meeting between two undercover journalists and the Claimant, the then Treasurer of the Conservative Party. The articles concerned proposed donations to the Conservative Party and alleged that the Claimant was corruptly offering for sale the opportunity to influence Government policy and seeking to evade the law concerning foreign donors.  These articles are the subject of libel proceedings due to be tried in June 2013.

A similar article was subsequently published in the Independent.  Mr Cruddas sued and the allegations were withdrawn.  A statement in open court was made along with a donation to charity.

The Defendant took the credit for these articles, claiming to be the “whistleblower in the case”.  He had a website and a blog which he used to promote his allegations against Mr Cruddas and also publicised them through his Twitter account.  The Defendant repeatedly attack the Claimant for having broken the law and taunted him, saying that if he declined to sue for libel, he would assume that he was admitted his guilt.  Once proceedings were commenced the Defendant presented himself as a victim of libel law who was being sued by a “rich bully”.

The claimant concerned 9 blogs and 12 tweets and the meaning pleaded was that the Claimant was a criminal, liable to arrest at any time.  The narrative in relation to the various tweets and blogs is set out in the judgment [13] to [31].

On 3 September 2012 the Claimant received a letter from the police confirming that there was no evidence of any criminal conduct on his part  “either directly or by implication” and that “no inchoate offences had been committed”.

In November 2012 the Defendant read, for the first time, the transcript of the conversations between the Claimant and the journalists.  After doing so he then indicated he did not wish to put in a defence.  Default judgment was entered on 16 November 2012.

The Court heard evidence from the Claimant and the Defendant at the assessment of damages hearing on 23 and 24 January 2012.  Judgment was given on 4 February 2013.

Judgment

After setting out the background, the Judge noted that

Mr Adams has done himself no favours in the conduct of this litigation, apparently taking every opportunity between March and September to aggravate his original publications – and to do so again on a privileged occasion in November. Be that as it may, I believe it was clear by the end of the recent assessment hearing that he was indeed, finally, acknowledging that the allegations had been untrue. I can thus legitimately record, without fear of contradiction, that the allegations of criminality against Mr Cruddas were indeed false and that he is entitled to have his reputation vindicated in that respect“. [43]

He noted that “observations contained in a judgment of the court are unlikely to achieve very much in themselves” but that

What most interested observers will want to know is, quite simply, “how much did he get?“” [43]

The judge then went on to set out the principles on which libel damages are to be assessed, noting ([45]) that there are three overlapping objectives to be taken into account; (i) compensation for injury to reputation, (ii) the need to convince bystanders of the baselessness of the charge (i.e. vindication), and (iii) to provide an element of solatium to the claimant for distress and hurt feelings (see Cairns v Modi [2012] EWCA Civ 1382 [21]).

The judge was asked to award a single sum of damages in respect of all the publications complained of, to fulfill all the above purposes.

The Claimant submitted that the allegations made were high on the scale of gravity, since the Defendant was repeatedly claiming that he was a criminal who deserved to be behind bars and had “absolutely no place in public life”.  This was an allegation went to the core of the Claimant’s professional reputation and personal integrity [48].

The judge accepted that the observations of the Court of Appeal in Cairns v Modi[27] – “that as a consequence of modern technology and communications systems any such stories will have the capacity to ‘go viral’ more widely and more quickly than ever before” – had a particular resonance in this case.

The judge held that

“In the light of the decision in John, it seems to me that the right approach would be for me to arrive at a figure which I regard as the minimum necessary, in all the circumstances, to achieve the objectives identified above (including vindication)” [51]

He concluded that these legitimate objectives could be achieved by an award of £45,000.  Although, as he noted, some tribunals might have selected a higher figure, he took into account that, by this time

“a significant number of readers who were interested in following the subject, at least those who are fair-minded, will have come to recognise some months ago that Mr Adams’ charges were actually just silly and not, after all, to be taken seriously” [52]

Comment

This was a case in which the published allegations were very serious and the defendant’s conduct seriously aggravated the Claimant’s damage.  Although the Tweets and blogs complained of were published to a relatively limited number of publishees (Mr Adams had just over 700 followers on Twitter) the court took the view that a substantial award of damages was required in order to “vindicate” the Claimant’s reputation.

The Defendant had taunted the Claimant and persisted in making the false allegations despite the absence of evidence.  He had, as the judge said “done himself no favours in the conduct of this litigation”.  In the circumstances the quantum of damages awarded was, in terms of the “conventional scale” of damages in libel cases, a low one.

This is only the second case in which an English court has made an award of damages arising out of defamatory tweets.  Coming shortly after the substantial sums paid in settlement of the claims brought by Lord McAlpine (from the BBC and ITV) it emphasises the dangers faced by those who make serious allegations by means of social media.  Mr Adams was unable to demonstrate that the allegations were true and could not rely on any defence of “responsible tweeting” – he had no reasonable belief that his tweets were in the public interest.   This case is a further reminder to those who Tweet and blog to take care before making claims of serious wrongdoing: check your facts before going public!

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4 responses

6 02 2013
Loverat

Interesting case but a question. There are alot of bloggers who do investigate wrong doing and publish information after a great deal of research and have evidence to support the view they are presenting.

You say check the facts before publishing. Sure, that is common sense but what about if Mr Adams (or anyone else) had the evidence and presented this all on their blog.

My understanding from other cases is that all any claimant would have to do if he wished to silence true accusations and censore information would be to sue for harassment instead and the judge would agree. This is the Law Society V Kowdowski and the relevent passage. I think putting the details of that specific case aside, the judge’s comments suggests that any website can be shut down for harassment if the information is true and the claimant objects to their wrong doing being put on public display. Possibly the judge said this in the context of Kowdowki’s overule conduct but it is concerning nevertheless.

http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2011/3185.html&query=the+and+law+and+society+and+v+and+kordowski&method=boolean

133. There is no need for evidence of falsity for me to reach this conclusion. Even if there were evidence that the allegations were true, the conduct of the Defendant could still not even arguably be brought within any of the defences recognised by the PHA. No individual is entitled to impose on any other person an unlimited punishment by public humiliation such as the Defendant has done, and claims the right to do. His conduct is a gross interference with the rights of the individuals he names.

The queston I would ask is, has this observation sent out a message to failed libel litigants everywhere that they can simply sue for harassment instead when they do not like reading about their own wrong doings?

6 02 2013
Morning Round-Up: Wednesday 6 February | Legal Cheek

[...] Damages of £45,000 for a blog and Twitter Libel [Inforrm] [...]

6 02 2013
Case Law: Cruddas v Adams, Damages of £45,000 for a blog and Twitter Libel | Language, society and law | Scoop.it

[...] In a judgment handed down on 4 February 2013 ([2013] EWHC 145 (QB)) Mr Justice Eady awarded the former Conservative Party treasurer, Peter Cruddas, defamation damages of £45,000 in respect of 9 blo…  [...]

11 02 2013
Law and Media Round Up – 11 February 2013 « Inforrm's Blog

[...] In a judgment handed down on 4 February 2013 ([2013] EWHC 145 (QB)) Mr Justice Eady awarded the former Conservative Party treasurer, Peter Cruddas, defamation damages of £45,000 in respect of 9 blogs and 12 tweets by published by lobbyist Mark Adams. Inforrm reported here. [...]

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