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Defamation: libel and slander

Definitions of defamation

1. You should be on guard against making statements which could be defamatory. A defamatory statement is one which injures the reputation of another person: it "tends to lower him in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally1".

2. Such a statement constitutes a "libel" if it is:

3. A statement will amount to a "slander" if it is

4. An action for defamation can be brought by:

5. An action for defamation cannot be brought by a Local Authority3 nor by any other public authority.

Defences to defamation

6. There are a number of defences to an action for defamation, including:

  1. the words complained of are true in substance and in fact;
  2. the statement is protected by absolute privilege (see below);
  3. the statement is protected by qualified privilege (see below);
  4. the statement constituted fair comment on a matter of public interest: that is, opinion which any person could honestly hold, based on facts known at the time;
  5. the words were published innocently by a person who was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement, who took reasonable care in relation to its publication, and s/he did not know, and had no reason to believe, that what s/he did caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement4 and an "offer of amends" has been made5. Proceedings cannot be taken if the offer of amends is accepted6. It will constitute a defence if the offer was made as soon as practicable after the publisher received notice that the words might be defamatory.

7. Absolute privilege attaches to:

8. Qualified privilege attaches:

9. Statements must not be published `maliciously'. Reports are published with `malice' if the publisher knew the report was untrue, or was reckless as to its truth, or intended to injure the complainant9.

10. Where there are good reasons for HSE to issue a press release after a particular case has been heard, Press Office should be contacted immediately. Any comment should be published as soon as possible.


Footnotes

  1. Sim v Stretch [1936] 2 All ER 1237, at 1240.
  2. Pullman v Walter Hill & Co Ltd [1891] 1 QB 524
  3. Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers (1993) 1 All ER 1011 HL
  4. Defamation Act 1996, s.1(1)
  5. Defamation Act 1996, s.2. An `offer of amends' entails offering to publish a suitable correction, together with an apology, and to pay any legal costs incurred by the complainant.
  6. Defamation Act 1996, s. 3
  7. Defamation Act 1996, section 14.
  8. Toogood v Spring (1834) 1 C.M.&R. 181; Adam v Ward (2003) EMLR 9.
  9. Horrocks v Lowe [1975] AC 135 and see Defamation Act 1996, section 15 and Schedule 1.
Updated 2009-07-07