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liability for malicious falsehood under english law June 2, 2010

Posted by Bradley in : consumers , trackback

As the UK Parliament begins to consider changing the law relating to libel as a result of the introduction of Lord Lester’s Bill last week, the Court of Appeal holds that in a claim for malicious falsehood (as opposed to a claim for libel) a statement that is capable of more than one meaning is not subject to a rule that it has only one right meaning. Lord Justice Sedley stated:

…On the judge’s unchallenged findings, the meanings which reasonable consumers might put on Asda’s health-food packaging include both the damaging and the innocuous. Why should the law not move on to proof of malice in relation to the damaging meaning and (if malice is proved) the consequential damage without artificially pruning the facts so as to presume the very thing — a single meaning – that the judge has found not to be the case?
I do not accept that doing this will make trials of malicious falsehood claims unwieldy or over-complex. This is not because these claims are always tried by a judge alone: the experience of common law judges is that juries are on the whole very good at assimilating and applying sometimes complicated directions. It is because it makes the trial of the issues fairer and more realistic. Instead of (as here) denying any remedy to a claimant whose business has been injured in the eyes of some consumers on the illogical ground that it has not been injured in the eyes of others, or alternatively … giving such a claimant a clear run to judgment when in the eyes of many customers the words have done it no harm, trial of plural meanings permits the damaging effect of the words to be put in perspective and both malice and (if it comes to it) damage to be more realistically gauged.

The decision rejects the artificiality of identifying one meaning for words that may be interpreted by readers in different ways and puts the emphasis on the question of malice.

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