Claimant seeking determination on meaning of words complained of as preliminary issue

Lord McAlpine of West Green v Bercow: Queen's Bench Division (Mr Justice Tugendhat): 25 April 2013

In December 2012, the claimant issued libel proceedings against the defendant in respect of a publication on Twitter to a substantial, but unquantifiable number of users in November 2012. The defendant admitted that she had published the words complained of, but denied that they bore the meaning pleaded by the claimant.

In March 2013, the claimant applied for an order that the question of the meaning of the words complained of be determined by a judge as a preliminary issue. He contended that if both parties knew what, if any, defamatory meaning the words complained of bore, they would be able to focus their attention on the appropriate damages, which would promote settlement. Alternatively, time and resources should not be taken up in preparing for a trial of an issue on damages which would not arise. The defendant submitted that the case would be more efficiently heard in a single hearing.

It fell to be determined whether the question of meaning should be tried as a preliminary issue. The application would be allowed.

The instant case was one in which furthering the overriding objective required that the actual meaning of the words complained of should be determined at as early a stage in the litigation as was practical. Accordingly, there would be the trial of a preliminary issue on the actual meaning of the tweet and whether those words had been defamatory ([40], [41], [49] of the judgment).

John v MGN Ltd [1996] 2 All ER 35 considered; Chase v News Group Newspapers [2002] All ER (D) 20 (Dec) considered.

Edward Garnier QC and Kate Wilson (instructed by RMPI LLP) for the claimant; William McCormick QC and David Mitchell (instructed by Carter-Ruck) for the defendant.