Actor Laurence Fox has taken the unusual step of requesting a jury trial in a libel claim. Mr. Fox is being sued by Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK star Crystal, former Stonewall trustee Simon Blake, and Coronation Street actress Nicola Thorp who accuse him of referring to them as ‘pedophiles’ on Twitter. In his response to the claim, Fox does not allege that the three are pedophiles, saying he was using a ‘rhetorical device’. He is, however, counterclaiming, suing them for defamation for accusing him of being racist.

The Twitter spat arose after Fox tweeted at supermarket Sainsburys, in response to its post celebrating black history month, saying it had created ‘safe spaces’ for black people. Fox said: ‘I won’t be shopping in your supermarket ever again whilst you promote racial segregation and discrimination.’ In response Crystal, Blake and Thorp tweeted, referring to Fox as a racist. Sainsbury’s told Fox that its ‘safe spaces’ were online support groups.

If the court grants Fox’s request, it would be the first jury trial in a defamation case in England since comedian, Frankie Boyle’s claim against the Daily Mirror. In 2012 Boyle was awarded over £50,000 in damages over an article which called him a ‘racist comedian’. The Defamation Act 2013 reversed the presumption that defamation trials would be heard by a jury, and no defamation case has been heard by a jury since.

Lawyers for Fox argue that a jury trial is appropriate in a case such as this where an allegation of racism has been made and a key question will be ‘What is a racist?’. Fox’s barrister argued that the diversity of a jury of 12 would be better able to reach a consensus on the meaning of ‘racism’, and that a jury would strengthen the decision as it would be ‘incapable of being undermined on the lazy basis that a white judge sided with a white man who denied being racist’.

Lawyers for Crystal, Blake and Thorp argued against a jury trial, saying racism is an ordinary English word and it is not difficult to work out the meaning. A jury trial would take longer and, it was argued, a judgment from a judge would make clear the basis for any decision.

The Judge commented that juries could include people with real bias or prejudice towards one or more parties, although noted that even if trial were by jury, a judge would still be involved in the case. The Judge reserved his ruling to a later date.