Characteristics of the Reader Taken into Account When Deciding the Meaning of Words in Defamation Cases

In Theedom v Nourish Training (t/a CSP Recruitment) the Claimant, a former employee of Nourish Trading (NT), brought a claim against NT after the managing partner sent e-mails to 124 other employers complaining about the claimants alleged conduct. The e-mail stated that the Claimant was sacked for passing confidential information to his girlfriend which amounted to gross misconduct. Additionally, in 109 of the e-mails NT also suggested it may bring criminal charges against the Claimant.

The parties disagreed on the detail and gravity of the meaning that would be conveyed to the mind of the hypothetical reasonable reader. The claimant alleged the reader would take into account the specific allegations and NT argued that the reader would simply form a broad impression of the allegations.

The Judge noted that:

‘…the key to resolving this dispute between the parties is…to take into account the characteristics of the typical reader of this particular type of publication and, I might add, the circumstances in which he is likely to read it.

The judge gave weight to the fact that the e-mails were sent to business professionals from the managing partner of a recruitment firm that either provided their staff, or at least offered them that service. He also acknowledged that the readers were told that the Claimant had betrayed the confidence of the employer’s clients and that the readers themselves may be approached by the Claimants associates, to whom he had given confidential information.

Due to these reasons the judge concluded that ‘the hypothetical reasonable reader of this publication having the above characteristics’ would have read the e-mail very closely, as suggested by the Claimant.

The ordinary meaning a court attaches to the material complained of is crucial in defamation proceedings, as this will have an effect on whether the words are deemed to have caused a claimant reputational damage.

Expert legal advice should be sought immediately in order to ensure a comprehensive analysis of the strength of a case.

Written by Guest Blogger Jonothan Scollen

Published February 18, 2016

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