Many people will have heard about the recent claim brought by writer and activist Jack Monroe against self-styled ‘rentagob’ columnist Katie Hopkins. The case has clarified what language may satisfy the Defamation Act 2013 requirement that a statement’s publication has caused, or is likely to cause, ‘serious harm’ to the claimant’s reputation to constitute libel or slander.
It is also yet another salutary lesson in the value of trying to resolve disputes as early as possible, before legal costs escalate and the parties’ positions become ever more entrenched.
In his Judgment handed down on 10 March 2017, Mr Justice Warby awarded Monroe damages of £24,000 for the publication of two tweets by Hopkins in May 2015 which were found to have been defamatory. After anti-government graffiti was sprayed onto a World War II memorial, Hopkins had tweeted ‘@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?’.
Hopkins later claimed to have mistaken Monroe for left-wing journalist Laurie Penny. Monroe rejected the allegation/innuendo in no uncertain terms, and offered to settle the matter in return for an apology and £5,000 donation to charity by Hopkins. More than two weeks later Hopkins eventually tweeted a minimal retraction, but failed to apologise: ‘@MsJackMonroe I was confused about identity. I got it wrong.’
In the Court proceedings which followed, Mr Justice Warby was prepared to infer that Hopkins’ tweets had caused ‘serious harm’ to Monroe’s reputation “on the straightforward basis that the tweets complained of have a tendency to cause harm to [Monroe]’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious for her”. He added that it can be difficult for a claimant to gather evidence of harm, but absence of this does not necessarily mean that no such ‘serious harm’ has occurred.
In addition to damages of £24,000, Hopkins has also been ordered to pay £107,000 on account of Monroe’s legal costs – as these are estimated to total over £300,000 the final costs award may be higher still.
Hopkins has applied for permission to appeal the Judgment, and a decision on this is expected from the Court of Appeal after Easter. But even if any appeal is ultimately successful, it is clear on any analysis that it would have been wiser for Hopkins to have accepted Monroe’s initial offer of an apology and £5,000 donation to charity.