A national newspaper was today ordered to clarify how it proposes to defend itself in a libel case brought by a suspended barrister. Public law specialist Barbara Hewson claims she was defamed by a 2017 article in The Times, which an earlier hearing found had accused her of making death threats to a law student. 

The main hearing in Barbara Hewson v Times Newspapers Ltd is due to open on 7 December and is listed for three days in the High Court.

At a preliminary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice this morning, The Times – represented by solicitor-advocate David Price QC was asked to clarify its pleadings after the claimant issued a Part 18 request under the Civil Procedure Rules. 

The Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin ordered the newspaper to make clear whether it intended to defend the claim on the ground that the journalist who wrote the article reasonably believed that the allegations against Hewson were true, or on the ground that the allegations were objectively true.

‘There is a significant and material difference between those two things and a difference in the level of enquiry required at trial,’ Nicklin J said.

The Times is expected to rely on the public interest defence created by Section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013. This protects neutral reportage of disputes in a matter of public interest, even when the publisher cannot prove the truthfulness of allegations. 

At a preliminary hearing to establish the article's meaning, the High Court last year ruled that The Times had accused Hewson – a public law barrister - of making death threats to a law student and subjecting him to harassment and bullying. In judgment, Nicklin J said: ‘I find the meaning of The Times article to be: "the claimant was guilty of repeated acts of harassment and online bullying”’.

Hewson, who was called to the bar in 1985, was suspended from practice for two years in December 2019, after being charged with professional misconduct by the regulator over a series of tweets and a blog post. 

An independent disciplinary tribunal found that the posts were ‘seriously offensive, abusive and publicly disparaging towards another barrister’, with some directed at that barrister’s competence and reputation.

It also found they were ‘obscene or seriously offensive in terms of the language used’ and ‘disparaging of the BSB’s regulatory process thereby undermining public trust and confidence in that process and thus in the profession’.

Hewson is represented by William Bennett QC of 5RB and London defamation firm Brett Wilson LLP. The firm declined the Gazette's invitation to comment.