The Death Of The Libel Trial?

20 June 2017

No longer are our media full of pictures of celebrities standing on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice wreathed in smiles having won a six figure in damages against the press. So why has the libel trial turned into a rare thing and is litigating still the best way to protect your reputation?

To answer the first question, the main reason why libel trials are so thin on the ground is time and expense. In the past, an individual’s or company’s reaction to being libelled on the front page of a tabloid was to sue, sue, sue. But fast forward a year, with no trial date in sight and increasing legal costs, litigation suddenly doesn’t seem quite so attractive. Even if successful at trial, where the Claimant has had to air his or her dirty linen in public, the result is often a pyrrhic victory with the unrecoverable costs out weighing the damages.

So if a libel trial and litigation is not necessarily the best way to protect your reputation, what is?

Taking the adage “prevention is better than cure”, your first step should be to undertake a reputation risk audit in order to identify threats to you and your organisation’s reputation. Only then can you begin to mitigate the risks to your reputation

Then, in the event a newspaper still approaches you alleging serious wrongdoing, take early legal advice. In many instances, having your lawyers liaise directly with the newspaper’s in house legal team, usually brings a better result. Ultimately, in house lawyers don’t want to publish libellous material as the legal costs of doing so are equally damaging to them. Bear in mind it’s usually easier for them to tussle with the journalist who is aching for a front page headline, rather than see the issue go to Court.

Libel trials were great fun in their day, especially for the lawyers, with mysterious parcels appearing in Court scuppering one side’s evidence and Claimants being stretchered out of Court. There are still circumstances, such as where dirty tricks and malicious agendas are at play when the only way to expose misdeeds and uncover the truth is for the matter to be played out at trial and for a Judge to make a decision on the evidence. 

As my colleague Rachel Atkins comments: "Defamation and libel cases are dropping because there are more effective ways of using lawyers to protect your reputation than just suing after the event. Of course, there will always be circumstances when litigation helps achieve an objective, but in the majority of cases it’s better to try and avoid the harm in the first place".

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About the Author

Charlotte Watson

Senior Legal Adviser

Charlotte brings a special understanding to reputation management, having worked both in-house for international media organisations and in private practice for Claimants.

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