Leading firm faces libel action over letter before action

High Court: application refused

Leading international law firm Squire Sanders is facing a libel claim over the contents of a letter before action it sent after failing to have the action struck out.

The firm sent the letter on behalf of a client to one of that client’s former directors, copied to his current employer, with a range of allegations about his actions while in his previous role.

According to the recently published ruling in Hodgins v Squire Sanders [2013] EWHC 2404 (QB) – though actually handed down on 1 August – Squire Sanders sought to have the claim struck out on the basis that the letter was not reasonably capable of being understood to bear a meaning of guilt of the conduct described, as the claimant contended.

Squire Sanders said the letter simply indicated the allegation that its client would seek to establish; the position was analogous to a criminal charge, where it would be unreasonable to take that charge as meaning guilt.

The claimant’s counsel, Andrew Caldecott QC, argued that it was as clear an allegation of guilt as there could be.

Mrs Justice Sharp agreed that the words used in the letter were capable of bearing that meaning. She adopted the submissions of Mr Caldecott, which she boiled down into three key points.

First that, as a matter of plain language, the letter was phrased as an outright assertion that the conduct happened.

Second, “there could be no possible purpose in copying the letter to the claimant’s employer and [the employer’s] board unless it were to suggest that the claimant was guilty of the malpractice alleged, and was unfit to be employed”.

Third, added weight was given by the fact that the “grave charges are made by a partner in a well-established firm. The reasonable reader is bound the assume that the more serious the charge, the more care will have been taken before making it”.

Squire Sanders put forward a wider principle that there should be a certain class of publication which is not capable of bearing a particular meaning. Without needing to come to a conclusion, the judge said there was a difference between a “newsworthy report” of a claim or charge and “what might be regarded as a ‘targeted’ publication from the originator of the allegation, or someone speaking on his or her behalf who will have an inside view on the facts”.

Squire Sanders had no comment.

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