2010: The first year where no juries sat for libel trials

None of the libel cases which reached the High Court in the previous twelve months involved a trial with a jury – making 2010 the first year in recent history which this has happened.

The detail emerged from figures which showed that defendants won four of every five of the defamation actions which got to court over the same period, according to figures reported by the Inforrm blog.

The previous longest period without a jury trial in a libel case was a 332-day gap which ended on 23 May 23, 2005 when the trial in the case of Howlett v Holding started.

There have been calls for the right to trial by jury to be abandoned in defamation cases, because of the costs and resources involved, and because juries do not return reasoned decisions or explanations for their verdicts.

As recently as December 1, in Spiller v Joseph, Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, dealing with the newly re-named honest comment defence, called for an end to jury trials in libel cases.

He asked: “Finally, and fundamentally, has not the time come to recognise that defamation is no longer a field in which trial by jury is desirable?

“The issues are often complex and jury trial simply invites expensive interlocutory battles, such as the one before this court, which attempt to pre-empt issues from going before the jury.”

Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, who last year introduced a Defamation Bill into the House of Lords, prompting the Coalition Government to promise to introduce its own legislation to reform libel laws, told the House of Lords last July that one reform he sought would be to make trial by judge alone the normal mode of trial.

That there were no jury libel trials last year wasn’t because claimants hadn’t requested them.

The claimant in Fiddes v Channel 4 sought a jury trial, but this was eventually rejected by Justice Tugendhat last June. The Court of Appeal upheld his decision.

Less than two weeks later, virtually at the doors of the court on the day the trial was scheduled to start, Fiddes discontinued the case.

A total of 21 hearings in front of High Court judges ended with libel actions being disposed of in 2010 – and the defendants won 17 (81 per cent) of those cases.

The figures also show that only eight of last year’s cases involved mainstream British media organisations – and that they won seven of them.

In the eighth, Bowman v Mirror Group Newspapers, West End star Simon Bowman won but ended up out of pocket as the damages he won were lower than offers of settlement he had rejected.

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