Phone-hacking and privacy injunctions contribute to drop in libel claims, says research

High Court: privacy cases may be on the wane

A drop in the level of libel litigation last year could be down to the phone-hacking scandal and celebrities switching to privacy injunctions, new research has suggested.

Sweet & Maxwell said the number of reported defamation court cases in the UK fell 15%, from 84 to 71, in the year to 31 May 2011. The number of cases where privacy arguments were made by high-profile individuals more than doubled, from nine to 24 in 2011.

“Public scrutiny following the eruption of the phone hacking scandal is leading to a lower appetite for risk for some media outlets,” said Korieh Duodu, a partner at media firm David Price Solicitors and Advocates and the author of Defamation: Law, Procedure and Practice.

“Media companies are concerned that the phone hacking scandal could lead to the imposition of a statutory media standards regulator, and they are have made every effort to put their own houses in order to avoid this. That will mean a more conciliatory, less controversial approach and fewer defamation cases.”

Mr Duodu said privacy injunctions have become “increasingly fashionable” as they can prevent damaging articles from ever seeing the light of day. However, he said tactics are changing as a result of recent rulings such as Giggs and Terry, which showed that it will in future be more difficult to get anonymity orders keeping the identities of parties confidential.

Only seven cases involved celebrities in the year, the lowest for five years, including Big Brother star Imogen Thomas, Welsh singer Charlotte Church, former Smiths frontman, Morrissey, and Nancy Dell’Olio.

Other high profile individuals involved in defamation court cases, including business people and politicians, included Lord Ashcroft, Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky and financier Nat Rothschild.

Sweet & Maxwell said the fall in defamation cases was led by a 36% drop in the number of cases against traditional media companies like newspapers and broadcasters, which reached a five-year low of just 27 cases.

Mr Duodu said another reason why the number of cases might have fallen is that it has become harder for defamation claimants to win. “Two important rulings in the UK’s appeal courts should mean that media companies now find it easier to run defences of ‘responsible journalism’ or ‘comment’. More claimants are being advised that their case may not be strong enough, even though it may well have succeeded previously.”