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 Authority2 nor by any other public authority.

6. Section 1(1) of the 2013 Defamation Act introduced a new test which provides that a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. This is qualified by s 1(2) in that for the purposes of the section, harm to the reputation of a body that trades for profit is not "serious harm" unless it has caused or is likely to cause the body serious financial loss.

Defences to defamation

7. 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 statement3 and an "offer of amends" has been made4. Proceedings cannot be taken if the offer of amends is accepted5. 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.
  6. Publication on a matter of public interest provides for the defence to be available in circumstances where it can be shown that the statement complained of was, or formed part of, a statement on a matter of public interest and that it was reasonably believed that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest6

8. Absolute privilege attaches to:

9. Qualified privilege attaches:

10. Statements must not be published `maliciously'.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 complainant8.

11. 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.


  1. Sim v Stretch [1936] 2 All ER 1237, at 1240. Back to reference of footnote 1
  2. Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers (1993) 1 All ER 1011 HL. Back to reference of footnote 2
  3. Defamation Act 1996, s.1(1). Back to reference of footnote 3
  4. 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. Back to reference of footnote 4
  5. Defamation Act 1996, s. 3. Back to reference of footnote 5
  6. Section 4(1) Defamation Act 2013. Back to reference of footnote 6
  7. Defamation Act 1996, section 14. Back to reference of footnote 7
  8. Defamation Act 1996, section 15 and Schedule 1. Back to reference of footnote 8
Updated 2021-08-27