Supreme Court hears ‘tried to strangle’ libel claim

The Supreme Court last week heard an appeal in Stocker v Stocker – a libel claim over an allegation made by Ms Stocker that her ex-husband Mr Stocker ‘tried to strangle’ her. Ms Stocker made the allegation in a Facebook post as part of an exchange with her ex-husband’s new partner who had added her as a Facebook friend.

The key dispute is over the meaning of the words ‘tried to strangle’. Do they mean, as Mr Stocker alleges and the lower courts found, that he tried to kill Ms Stocker? Or do they mean, as Ms Stocker says, that he had violently gripped her neck?

Although words can convey different meanings to different people, in defamation claims the Judge will determine the one true meaning of the words complained of – the meaning it would convey to the ordinary reasonable reader. The Judge does so by reading the words themselves; the litigants cannot introduce evidence of what people who had in fact read the words understood them to mean.

In this case the trial Judge looked at the Oxford English Dictionary to assist him. Whether his use of the dictionary was appropriate is one of the matters in issue. He then found the ‘tried to strangle’ meant ‘tried to kill’.

The Judge found on the evidence that Mr Stocker had put his hand over Ms Stocker’s mouth and under her chin and this at least amounted to common assault. There was also a police report of the incident which showed Ms Stocker had handprints on her neck.

However, Ms Stocker could not prove that her ex-husband had tried to kill her by strangulation. As a result, Ms Stocker’s defence of truth failed and she faces a costs bill in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Ms Stocker is challenging the Judge’s decision on meaning, which was upheld by the Court of Appeal. Her lawyers argue that if she succeeds on this meaning issue, her defence of truth ought necessarily to also succeed.

The case has attracted criticism from women’s rights organisations, who take the view that if Mr Stocker succeeds the law is silencing women who speak out about domestic violence. In the #metoo era, the law has been criticised by those who wish to speak out about experiences of abuse, whether sexual misconduct or violence. Both libel law and non-disclosure agreements (often known as ‘gagging clauses’) have come under fire. In hearing this case, the highest court in the land enters the fray. zoom-in will report further when the Supreme Court gives its judgment.