It’s not often that you get to help out a fellow member of the profession in a defamation suit, but that is exactly what happened in early January 2017 when barrister Benjamin Amunwa contacted the firm regarding a defamation claim which had been brought against him by Tariq Alsaifi. Partner Rudi Ramdarshan and Solicitor Laura Gomme were successful in an application for summary disposal of the claim on 27 June 2017. The full judgment of Mr Justice Warby can be found at Bailii
The claim related to a blog post published on 5 August 2016 by the Defendant which commented on a reported judgment concerning the Claimant.
The Claim was unusual in that it was brought by a litigant in person under the Part 8 Procedure with the Claim Form, Statement of Case and supporting documents totalling 276 pages. The claim lacked clarity and focus. Attempts to have the Claimant re-plead its case and consent to a transfer to Part 7 were resisted by the Claimant.
The matter came before Master Cook on 1 February 2017. At that hearing Master Cook, made the following order:
1. The Claim is to proceed as a Part 7 Claim
2. Unless the Claimant files and serves an amended Particulars of Claim, which is to comply with the requirements of CPR 16, CPR 53 and the relevant practice direction by 4pm on 1 March 2017, his claim be struck out. In particular, such document must set out:
a) What words are complained of,
b) The alleged defamatory meaning, either their natural and ordinary meaning or their innuendo meaning,
c) The serious harm complained of
3. By 4pm on 15 March 2017, the Defendant is to:
a) File and serve a Defence, or
b) Make an application to strike out the Claimant’s claim, apply for summary disposal, or apply for any such remedy as so advised.
The Claimant thereafter served his substituted particulars of claim totalling 7 pages of single spaced type with a further 5 pages. Unconventionally, the Claimant selected individual words out of context.
To the extent that the Claimant did not properly plead its case in accordance with the order above, the Claim stood struck out. It was unknown at the time whether the Court would ultimately take a restrictive approach as to the procedural failings by litigants in person as seen by recent decisions.
Practice Direction 53 provides clear guidance on statements of case in Defamation Claims. Pd 53 2.1 sets out that ‘Statements of case should be confined to the information necessary to inform the other party of the nature of the case he has to meet. Such information should be set out concisely and in a manner proportionate to the subject matter of the claim’.
In addition, as set out in Pd 53 2.3 the Claimant must specify in the particulars of claim the defamatory meaning which he alleges that the words or matter complained of conveyed, both in their natural and ordinary meaning and any innuendo meaning.
In accordance with the Order of Master Cook dated 1 February 2017 an application for ruling on meaning and summary disposal was issued.
The Application for a ruling on meaning
Subsequently, the Defendant made an application for an Order pursuant to CPR Practice Direction 53 that the words complained of at Paragraph 4 of the Claimant’s claim were not capable of bearing the meaning attributed to them in the Particulars of Claim, or capable of any other meaning defamatory of the Claimant. In the alternative, the Defendant sought an Order for Summary Disposal of the Claimant’s claim under section 8 of the Defamation Act 1996.
It was the view of the Defence team that the words complained of by the Defendant were not capable of bearing the meaning which were pleaded by the Claimant.
Further, that the individual words complained of by the defendant were not capable of having a defamatory meaning.
For instance the Claimant had complained that the use of the words in isolation ‘with a further education college’ carried with them a defamatory meaning. The Claimant claimed that the individual words ‘lecturers in further education college’ and ‘the gap remains open’ carried with them defamatory meanings when associated with the Claimant. In total the Claimant had made 18 individual and apparent independent complaints of words in isolation which it considered to be defamatory.
The Claimant had not applied to amend its claim, nor applied for relief from sanctions of the ‘unless order’ dated 1 February 2017.
It was against that background that the Defendant’s application and witness statement were prepared. The Defendant also sought summary disposal under s8 Defamation Act 1996. The Claimant made a cross application, also for a ruling on meaning. The defences which were identified and put forward included qualified and absolute privilege, public interest and honest opinion.
At the hearing of the Defendant’s Application, Mr Justice Warby commented that the Claimant’s approach to the pleading of the words complained of was ‘unorthodox and unhelpful’. Notwithstanding the previous unless order and without any application before the court, faced with a litigant in person, the very experienced defamation judge assessed what he considered to be the appropriate pleading which the Claimant ought to have put forward and substituted that for the particular of the claim.
At paragraph 49, Mr Justice Warby set out“Mr Alsaifi's approach to the pleading of the words complained of is unorthodox and unhelpful. To atomise the wording of the publication as he has done, picking out individual words or phrases, is artificial in the extreme. It runs counter to the principles I have identified. The right approach in a case such as the present would be to set out the entire Article, highlighting the words of which complaint is made, as I have done above. Mr Alsaifi's approach to the pleading of defamatory meanings is also flawed. It is a cardinal principle of the law of meaning that a given set of words can have only one defamatory meaning, that is to say, they cannot bear meanings which are at variance with one another. This is the "single meaning rule". The pleading of meaning in this case, with a variety of meanings of differing shades, is unhelpful and not conducive to the overriding objective.”
Mr Justice Warby at paragraph 54 stated“This said, there is a great deal in Mr Alsaifi's pleaded meanings that in my judgment fails the legal tests I have identified, and fails so clearly that I can and should rule out the possibility of such meanings being upheld at a trial. I would not permit any of the pleaded case save perhaps for the few words I have already identified, though it remains my view that my own version is to the same effect but clearer. To that extent, Mr Amunwa's meaning application succeeds and that of Mr Alsaifi fails.”
The application for a ruling on meaning in effect allowed the Claimant to better set out the meaning of the words. This was also touched upon in the case of Tariq Alsaifi v (1) Trinity Mirror Plc and Board of Directors (2) Newcastle College Group and Board of Governors  EWHC 1444 (QB)
The Summary Disposal
The Defendant’s claim for summary disposal was a lot more straightforward. It is noted that in the above mentioned judgment, Trinity Mirror had issued an application for summary judgment as opposed to summary disposal. The net effect is the same. Summary judgment has the benefit of being able to deal with individual issues whereas summary disposal is restricted to disposing of the entire action.
Mr Justice Warby upheld the Defendant’s application for summary disposal on the basis that the article constituted a fair and accurate report which would attract qualified privilege, and the remainder of the article, would constitute honest opinion.
The case is interesting as it demonstrates the latitude which the court affords to litigants in person and how an application for ruling on meaning can be of assistance to all parties in clarifying a claim which had been brought by a litigant in person. It is also is a helpful reminder that summary disposal can still play a role, notwithstanding the expansion of summary judgement. The case also shows the proactive approach the firm takes when confronted with unmeritorious claims.