Social media and the ease of electronic messaging provide traps for the unwary with their informality turning conversations into a permanent record the recent case of Stocker v Stocker  being a case in point.
An acrimonious divorce was the starting point for an ill-advised series of postings by the former wife on her ex-husband’s girlfriend’s Facebook wall without due regard to the posts being effectively published, not only to the girlfriend but to all the girlfriend’s Facebook friends.
The words complained of were as follows:
“Well u know about him trying to strangle me, then he was removed from the house following a number of threats he made and some gun issues I believe and then the police felt he had broken the terms of the non-molestation order”.
“All quite traumatic really”.
The judge considered the purpose of the words were to “blacken [Mr Stocker] in the eyes of his current girlfriend……”.
Mr Stocker submitted that the meaning of the words were that “he was dangerous, at least to any women with whom he lived or had lived, that he was a man who tried to kill on one occasion, had been arrested for an offence involving firearms on another, and had given the police reason to believe that he had broken a non-molestation order against him” and such meaning was defamatory.
Mrs Stocker submitted that the statements were substantially true in respect of an assault and various arrests. The judge found that Mrs Stocker had proved some justification of the words she posted on Facebook, but the impression given by the postings to the ordinary reader was “a significant and distorting overstatement of what had in fact occurred” so she had “not met the sting of the postings that [Mr Stocker] was a dangerous man”.
The case was based on pre-Defamation Act 2013 grounds. The posts were read by Mr Stocker’s girlfriend and three of her Facebook friends. A question arises as to whether under the new Act the case would have passed the serious harm test set out in Section 1 of the Defamation Act. This specifies that “A statement is not defamatory unless its publication was caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”.
One can only guess whether the case would have come to trial in the post Defamation Act 2013 libel landscape. The judge found that despite the limited publication “the libel was not trivial” because “the painting of the false picture that the claimant was a dangerous man……was intended to be, and was, damaging to his reputation and [his] relationship”. Additionally, the judge commented that the girlfriend’s family and friends could not now believe and could not have believed for long that the claimant was dangerous or posed a risk to her.
In the circumstances there was in this instance a meritorious claim which it is quite possible may have been sufficient to clear the “substantial harm” hurdle now in place for defamation claims. It is a warning for everyone that emotionally charged situations coupled with some ill thought through postings on Facebook or other social media have the potential to leave you on the wrong end of a High Court Judgment and most likely a hefty legal bill, even if only a modest damages orderwould be the result.
For more information about the issues raised in this article or to find out more about how the Dispute Resolution team can help you please contact Stephen Baker on 0118 952 7206 or email [email protected].
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