The Supreme Court has decided that a Facebook post in which a woman claimed her husband “tried to strangle her” meant he grasped her by the neck, not that he attempted to kill her, overturning a finding that she libelled him.
The appeal was by Nicola Stocker, who had divorced her husband Ronald, and wrote on Facebook “Last time I accused him of cheating, he spent a night in the cells, tried to strangle me” in a post to his new partner that was seen by other users.
Mr Stocker sued for libel and, at trial, the Judge consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, which provided two possible meanings of the verb “strangle”: (a) to kill by external compression of the throat; and (b) to constrict the neck or throat painfully.
The Judge decided that because Mrs Stocker said her husband “tried” to strangle her, that could not mean he had constricted her neck painfully, and could only mean he had tried to kill her.
The Supreme Court decided that this “anomalous result was the product of confining the meaning of the words exclusively to two dictionary definitions”.
The Court reviewed the law relating to meaning, and in particular to the meaning of statements on social media, which the Courts have generally found should be assessed without being over-analytical to reflect the approach of a typical reader.
As a result of the Judge’s “impermissible” use of the dictionary, the Supreme Court re-determined the meaning and held that the post meant Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the neck.
The undisputed evidence was that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the throat, leading to red marks being left on her neck which were visible to police officers two hours after the attack.
Nicola Stocker said of her victory “I’m delighted and hugely relieved. It highlights the danger that the courts are being used by men to continue an abusive process whether it be in libel courts or the family court”.
David Price QC, who acted for her, said: “I’m delighted that she has finally got some common sense and justice.
“While the judgment clarifies the issue of interpreting words, it doesn’t solve the formidable problem of the English libel law, which makes it difficult if not impossible for ordinary people to defend themselves because of the costs.”
In a separate case, the BBC has settled a claim brought by the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, after the High Court ruled a BBC report about a payment allegedly made to Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, accused Mr Poroshenko of corruption.
The broadcaster has agreed to pay damages and issue a correction. It must also pay legal costs.
Mr Poroshenko’s lawyer, Graham Atkins, read a statement to the High Court, in which he said: “Mr Poroshenko did not authorise or procure any payment to Mr Cohen of any kind, nor was any such payment ever made to Mr Cohen or any other individuals for that purpose.”
Atkins told the court the damage has been exacerbated because the article remained online for so long. “He believes that the resulting delay will inevitably have increased the damage caused to his reputation by the publication of this allegation,” he said of his client.
The BBC said ““We believed that the publications made a less serious allegation against Mr Poroshenko, but in the light of a finding by the High Court that the allegation was as set out above, we are happy to accept that this allegation was untrue.”