Slander: a victory for the InnocentPosted on

How’s about this for a chiding from a judge? Warby J described the Defendant in the case of Bartholomew Umeyor v Innocent Ibe as combative to the point of obstreperousness”, “impatient”, “self-righteous” with a “strong sense of his own importance and integrity”. Despite all of that though Mr Ibe succeeded in his defence.

Slander is a defamatory statement in the spoken, temporary form. Libel is a defamatory statement in permanent form (written, recorded etc)

Slander claims have always been rare as a result of the difficulties involved in bringing a claim, however, in a world that is now dominated by social media and the written word (or, increasingly, pictures and videos!), it would be fair to say that slander claims are almost extinct which is what makes this case interesting. Warby J himself acknowledged in his judgment that many communications that would have been spoken in the past are now text-based, so that any defamation claim would be in libel.

Historically, many of the difficulties with establishing a slander claim remain unchanged, which accounts for the lack of cases over the years. One of the primary difficulties is in proving the exact words spoken – the claimant in this case encountered this difficulty. The Claimant and Defendant were both members of the Mbaise Union, an unincorporated association created by members of the Mbaise community[1] in the UK. The members would meet regularly to discuss various issues affecting the community. At one of the Union meetings, at which the Claimant was not present, it was claimed that the Defendant accused the Claimant of using Union money to buy prostitutes in Nigeria. The Defendant admitted he spoke about the Claimant’s use of the money but that he did not make the statement complained of. The fact that the meeting had been conducted in Ibo[2] and there were only three witnesses to the words that were supposedly spoken, all of whom recalled slightly different interpretations, meant the case fell at the first hurdle and the Claimant was unable to prove the Defendant made the statement complained of.

Secondly, claimants ordinarily need to show “special damage” – specific loss attributed to the defamatory statement – another hurdle the claimant fell at despite arguing that the words were actionable without special damage because they imputed the commission of a criminal offence.

Finally, there is the need to prove that serious harm has been caused to the claimant’s reputation – in this case, the judge felt that the words, whilst raising the issue of sexual immorality and dishonesty, did not cause serious harm as the witnesses statements and other evidence overall tended to show that the majority of meeting attendees would not have believed the statements.

As if that wasn’t enough – the judge concluded that, had the Claimant succeeded on the points above, then the claim would have failed on account of the words being spoken on an occasion of qualified privilege because the communication was made at a Union meeting and as such it was made by someone with an interest in the subject matter to someone who has a corresponding interest in receiving the communication.

So, a difficult day for the Claimant and a lesson to all potential slander claimants – ensure your case is watertight on the facts before even considering bringing a claim.

The full judgment can be read here.

[1] Persons originating from Imo State in south eastern Nigeria

[2] The language of the region

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