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Landmark defamation law decision handed down by Supreme Court in Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd

The Supreme Court has given their long-awaited judgement in the case of Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd. The Judgment, which was handed down on 12 June 2019, clarifies the legal position in relation to Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013.  This concerns the central issue of “serious harm”.

The case was brought by Bruno Lachaux, a French aerospace engineer, who had previously lived in the United Arab Emirates with his wife. Mr Lachaux began divorce proceedings in the UAE courts in 2011 and sought custody of the couple’s son.

In early 2014, several British newspapers published articles which made allegations about Mr Lachaux’s behaviour towards his ex-wife during the course of their marriage and the divorce proceedings. The newspaper articles made allegations of domestic abuse and mistreatment by Mr Lachaux against his ex-wife.

The main question on appeal to the Supreme Court concerned the consequences of Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013.  This section states:

A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

The question for the Supreme Court was whether the introduction of Section 1(1) Defamation Act 2013 had altered the common law.

Prior to the Defamation Act 2013, the common law position was that a statement would be held to be defamatory if, after an objective assessment, it was held that the reasonable reader would attach a defamatory meaning to it. This could be so without the individual having to show evidence of actual harm being suffered as a result of the statement.

However, the Supreme Court in Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd, has now held that the introduction of S.1(1) of the 2013 Act has now added to the common law. Section 1(1) has introduced the notion that a statement must cause serious harm to an individual’s reputation in order to be defamatory. The Court also held that serious harm “is a proposition of fact which can be established only by reference to the impact which the statement is shown actually to have had”. Therefore, “the defamatory character of the statement no longer depends only on the meaning of the words and their inherent tendency to damage the claimant's reputation”.

The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision appears to raise the threshold for claimants who want to prove that a statement is defamatory. Lord Sumption stated in the Supreme Court’s judgment that he does not accept that the outcome of the case is a “revolution of the law of defamation”. However, this clarification of the impact of Section 1(1) does appear to have added an extra hurdle for defamation claimants to overcome, as it will no longer be enough to merely show that the words complained of were inherently damaging.

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