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What is meaning in defamation cases - TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

The judgement in TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

What is meaning in defamation cases?

What matters most under English law of defamation, is the meaning attributed to a word, a sentence, or an article, by a reasonable reader, rather than the dictionary meaning of any word or phrase. It follows that under English law, defamation could be created by innuendo and a post could be defamatory even if it does not include a specific defamatory word or phrase.

A case summary: TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police case summary

How is the meaning of words determined in defamation cases?

Meaning of words in defamation cases that imply that someone is guilty of an offence

What is the difference between a statement of fact and an opinion in defamation cases

A case summary: TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police case summary

The short facts of the case are that our client, TJM, who was a member of the UK armed forces, was accused by his former partner and the mother of his child of various criminal offences against her, including harassment. Before TJM was even questioned by the police, the investigating officer wrote to TJM’s military superior with what appeared to be statements of facts which alleged that TJM had harassed his former partner, that the Crown Prosecution Service will most likely charge him with a criminal offence and that TJM was not suitable to be a member of the military forces. TJM was later questioned by the police where he denied the allegations. He was never charged over the alleged offences but was placed on police bail for nearly a year. During his time on bail, as it later turned out, the police officer from West Yorkshire Police never referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Following an intervention by TJM lawyers, the police officer finally referred to case to the Crown Prosecution Service but the Crown Prosecution Service returned it back to West Yorkshire Police saying that there was no case to answer. TJM took West Yorkshire Police to court for defaming him before his military superiors.

West Yorkshire Police claimed that the words in the email which was sent to TJM’s superior did not have a defamatory meaning and therefore the email was not defamation. The In a meaning hearing, the High Court judge had found the to the contrary, that the email had defamatory meaning at the highest possible level and that West Yorkshire Police had defamed TJM.

English Defamation Law Legal Advice FAQ

Under English law, defamation is determined by how a reasonable reader interprets the words, rather than their dictionary meaning. This includes implications made by innuendo or context. The court's role is to establish the single, natural meaning that a reasonable reader would attribute to the words, considering the context, author's intent, and common language understanding.

In defamation cases, the repetition rule implies that if you publish a statement suggesting someone else has claimed the claimant committed an offence, it's typically interpreted as endorsing that claim. Essentially, if the original allegation was at Chase Level 1 (directly accusing the claimant of an offence), repeating that allegation will generally imply the same level of guilt. Context and presentation can, however, alter this perception.

In defamation, distinguishing between fact and opinion is vital. A statement of fact alleges something specific and verifiable about someone, while an opinion is a subjective view or belief. The court assesses how a reasonable reader perceives the words, considering whether they suggest a provable fact or merely express an individual's personal view or critique.

Chase Levels categorize the degree of accusation in defamation claims: Level 1 signifies direct guilt of an offence, Level 2 suggests there are reasonable grounds to suspect guilt, and Level 3 indicates grounds to investigate possible guilt. These levels help articulate the seriousness of the implication made by the defamatory statement and are crucial in assessing the harm to reputation.

Timing is crucial due to the limitation period for defamation claims, typically 12 months from publication. You should consider personal, financial, and reputational impacts and whether immediate legal action aligns with your long-term goals. Sometimes, other resolutions might be more appropriate, and strategic planning can be key to a successful outcome.

How is the meaning of words determined in defamation cases?

The main dispute between the parties in a defamation case typically revolves around the meaning of a word or phrase. In other words, the claimant and respondent will disagree on the context and interpretation of the statement, and whether it can be considered defamatory. This is an important issue to consider, as the meaning of the statement is essential in determining whether the statement is, in fact, defamatory and whether it has caused harm to the claimant’s reputation. Both parties will typically present evidence in order to support their interpretation of the statement, including witness statements, expert opinions, and other relevant evidence.

Ultimately, the court must determine the proper meaning of the statement and decide whether it is defamatory. To determine the meaning of the words in a defamation case, the parties may ask the court to decide before the case goes to trial on the meaning that should be attributed to the words complained of. This is done by way of a court hearing, which is treated like a mini-trial, solely for the purpose of determining the meaning of the words the claimant has complained about. In a meaning hearing, the court's task is to interpret the text and determine the single natural meaning of the words. This single, natural meaning is the meaning that the hypothetical, reasonable reader would understand the words to bear.

The court must examine the context of the words, the author's intent, and the common understanding of the language used in order to determine the natural meaning of the words. The court must also consider any extrinsic evidence that could be used to clarify the ambiguity of the words. Ultimately, the court's goal is to determine the single, natural meaning of the words that a reasonable reader would understand. There may be different shades or levels of meaning attached to situations where the meaning implies that the claimant may have committed a particular act.

Previously the court identified three points levels of defamatory meanings. Chase Levels, 2 and 3. Chase Level 1 means that the claimant is guilty of liable for the alleged act. Level 2 means that reasonable grounds exist to suspect the claimant of the act. Level 3 means that there is probable cause to investigate the claimant's guilt. There are many shades of meaning between these levels, especially between Levels 1 and 2.

Meaning of words in defamation cases that imply that someone is guilty of an offence

A defendant who publishes a statement stating that a third party has claimed that the claimant has committed an offence will normally be understood to mean that the claimant has been convicted of the offence and not that the third party stated so.

The defendant's statement is to be understood as in substance transmitting and endorsing all the allegations made by the third person. This is known as the repetition rule. This means that the repeated allegation of Chase Level 1 will generally have a Chase Level 1 meaning.

This repetition rule is subject to change depending on the context and all circumstances. You can repeat Chase Level 1 statements in a manner that is not Chase Level 1. One example of this is when the Chase Level 1 statement is repeated in terms that make it obvious that it is false.

What is the difference between a statement of fact and an opinion in defamation cases

The final question for the judge in those types of hearings is what impact the words published would have on a hypothetical reader or in other words whether the reader would interpret the publication in context as expressing fact or opinion. Part of determining words' meaning is whether they express an opinion or assert facts.

Both questions (i.e the meaning and the fact/opinion) are determined by how the words would strike a hypothetical reasonable reader. Readers are able to assimilate the meaning of words and whether they communicate fact or opinion holistically. In the case of TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, the court was asked to determine the meaning of an email which was sent by a police officer to the employer of an accused person.

The claimant claimed that the meaning of the email was that he had been guilty of a criminal offence whilst the West Yorkshire Police claimed that there the email simply informs the employer of an ongoing investigation. The judge concluded that the email by the West Yorkshire Police was a Chase 1 level email which means a reasonable reader of the email would assume that the claimant was in fact guilty of the offence. Read the full judgement in the case of TJM -v- Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police.

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