Where have all the defamation cases gone?

It wasn’t long ago that London was the libel capital of the world.

Cameron Diaz
Diaz: sued The Sun in London in 2005

The very mention of law firms Carter-Ruck and Schillings struck fear in the hearts of newspaper editors, and defamation judge David Eady approached near-celebrity status on the High Court bench.

Celebrities were a big draw – Elton John, Cameron Diaz and Jason Donovan have all appeared in London’s libel courts.

The ‘McLibel Two’ defended a claim brought by the fast-food giant that lasted two decades. Science journalist Simon Singh’s bust up with the British Chiropractic Association resulted in a landmark ruling, and flamboyant characters such as Mohamed Al-Fayed and Christine and Neil Hamilton also had their moment in the courtroom.

But has London’s defamation  heyday passed? And are media law claimant lawyers retooling their practices towards the growing area of privacy protection?

There’s no denying defamation is not as lucrative for lawyers and their clients. With successive governments unenthusiastic about legal aid for defamation, it is near impossible to get state funding.

Damages running into the millions have also gone – today, damages are usually limited to what would be awarded in serious personal injury claims, about £200,000. Juries have increasingly been replaced with judge-only trials. And the Defamation Act 2013 stipulates that businesses must show a likely substantial financial loss before getting a defamation suit off the ground.

Also, slashed newsroom budgets mean fewer resources for the type of investigative journalism that can result in defamation allegations.

Privacy, though, is a growing area. The law is still developing and media breaches are arguably more likely. 

Protecting privacy and data security in the cyber world is the model firms are moving towards. Schillings, for example, has recast itself as an integrated legal, risk management and IT security and investigation practice targeting the reputation management market for corporates and high net-worth individuals (The Lawyer, 5 Sep 2013).

But London’s libel glory days are not over entirely. ‘Plebgate’, for example, sees former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell and policeman Toby Rowland both making defamation claims.

Withers head of reputation management Amber Melville-Brown says: “Where there is a trend towards salacious celebrity stories, it is more likely a claimant will have to reach for their privacy shield. If the fashion is for in-depth investigative pieces, the victim will need to strike back with a defamation claim.”

So don’t chuck out the defamation textbooks just yet.