Did the “number of defamation cases fall by a third in a year”?

16 11 2015

Royal-Courts-of-JusticeOver the last few days there have been a number of media reports (for example, in the Guardian and the Times [£]) based on a Thomson Reuters Press Release[pdf] issued on behalf of Thomson Reuters entitled “Number of Defamation Cases Falls by a third in a year”.  

The press release suggests that “The number of reported defamation cases in the UK has fallen by almost a third (27%) over the last year, from 86 to 63“.  They go on to suggest that “the new Defamation Act came into force in January 2014 and is likely to be driving the overall decline“. All this highly misleading.  The research reported does not relate to the number of defamation claims actually brought and does show any fall in the number of issued cases in 2014-2015.  In fact, as we have previously reported, the latest official statistics show a sharp increase in the number of claims that have been issued.

We have, on a number of occasions, expressed doubt about the value of the research into the numbers of claims which is not based on official statistics (see our posts in relation to the 2011 and 2012 research by Sweet & Maxwell).  Although the underlying data is not available it appears that, like the Sweet & Maxwell research before it, the Thomson Reuters research is entirely based the number of reports on Lawtel and Westlaw of court hearings and statements in open court.

There are some “classification” difficulties as Lawtel classifies a wide range of cases against the media as “defamation” even where that is not the cause of action relied on.  Confidence in the quality of the research is not increased by the fact that under the heading “Public figures involved in defamation cases over the past year” it includes the case of Brand v Berki ([2014] EWHC 2979 (QB)).  As the judgment makes clear, the Particulars of Claim limited the case to harassment only ([32]).

Reports of hearings in a given year are not a reliable indicator to the number of claims actually issued in that year. As we have pointed out before, hearings typically take place many months after the issue of proceedings.  In other words, some of the hearings in the year to 30 June 2015 will be of claims issued in 2013 (before the Defamation Act 2013 was in force).

In any event, the number of hearings is an unreliable indicator of the actual number of defamation cases being brought.  Some cases will result in several interim hearings – there were, for example, three hearings in Rufus v Elliott in the year in question.  In other cases, there will be no hearings at all – if, for example proceedings are issued and the case is then settled without a statement in open court.  The figure for hearings goes up and down from year to and bears no clear relationship to the actual number of proceedings issued.  Thomson Reuters have counted 63 “cases” in 2014-2015 whereas the number of claims issued each year is considerably higher.

The actual number of defamation cases brought (as opposed to hearings) known from the “Judicial Statistics” issued each year by the Ministry of Justice.  The last full year for which statistics are available is 2014.  In that year there were 227 issued defamation claims in London (where the large majority of claims are made) – as opposed to 142 in 2013 (see our post here).

In other words, there is (as yet) no evidence of a drop in the number of defamation cases due to the Defamation Act 2013. We will have to wait and see until the 2015 statistics become available in June 2016.

 


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