Lord Ashcroft Libel Case ‘Shows Need For Absolute Clarity’

Lawyer Comments On Decision Over Amending Defence

09.05.2012

A Court of Appeal decision related to a defamation case involving former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft and the Independent newspaper highlights the need for absolute clarity when it comes to launching a defence in such cases.

The ruling relates to the peer launching a libel claim against journalist Stephen Foley, Independent News and Media Ltd and editor Roger Alton over two articles which he said indicated he had participated in corrupt activities.

While the defendants denied that the articles were defamatory on the grounds of justification, honest comment and privilege, an application by Lord Ashcroft to strike out two of the defences was upheld on the basis they lacked clarity.

A request to amend the defence (by reintroducing the two defences which had been struck out but in different terms to their earlier plea) was subsequently refused, which led to the application to the Court of Appeal. However this was dismissed as it was felt the defendants failed to comply with established principles when it comes to pleading.

Rebekah Finch, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office who specialises in advising on defamation issues, said this demonstrates how the Courts expect parties involved in such a case to meet a required level of conduct.

She outlined: “This judgment simply confirms the need to plead allegations clearly and with precision, something which is of particular importance when pleading the meaning in a libel action so as to ensure there is a fair determination and proper conduct of all aspects of litigation.

“Repeated satellite litigation on pleadings for tactical reasons is not looked upon favourably by the Courts, and this also demonstrates that repeated attempts to amend may amount to an abuse of process.

“A case cannot proceed on a muddled basis, with a party not being aware of the case they have to meet, either at the stage of disclosure of documents or at the trial itself. The requirement for a case to be properly formulated and clear from the outset is an exercise in proportionate case management.

“We would always urge those involved in such a case to ensure they get full and professional advice on such important issues.”