Court ruling could block claims for online libel

By Roger Pearson

An
Appeal Court ruling may deter so-called “libel tourists” bringing cases
to the UK in the hope of pay-outs they might not be able to win
overseas.

The ruling is also significant for online publishers
as it could possibly be used to prevent libel actions brought over
statements whose circulation has been minimal.

A pending internet
libel action, Jameel v Dow Jones, has been struck out on the basis
that, even if it was successful, damages would be minimal and would be
out of proportion to the costs and court time that would be run up.

Master
of the Rolls Lord Phillips, in striking the claim out, said: “The game
will not merely not have been worth the candle, it will not have been
worth the wick.”

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, of Finers Stephens Innocent, said the ruling was having an immediate impact in libel law circles.

He
said: “This is a significant decision for internet publishers. It
starts to inject into the world of online publications some much needed
clarity. I believe that the courts have taken a robust and practical
view about the potential damage caused by an alleged libel.

“This
will in future focus attention on this question when claims are brought
over allegations the circulation of which has been very low. It could
well be used to block other such actions.”

The ruling could play
a significant role in deterring lawyers bringing cases to the UK courts
in the hopes that being heard here rather than in another country will
benefit the claimant.

It may also be used by lawyers to nip
low-key cases in the bud. The court here has left no doubt that there
are times when, if cases are likely to be lengthy and to rack up costs
and take time which is disproportionate to the to the alleged damage,
they should not be allowed to go ahead.

Jameel v Dow Jones involved Yousef Jameel, the brother of Mohammed Jameel, head of a Saudi Arabian company.

The
company and Mohammed is suing the Wall Street Journal Europe in a
separate action, over an article that is claimed to have amounted to
allegations of terrorist ties and of funds having been funnelled to
terrorist agencies.

Yousef Jameel launched his libel action
against Dow Jones over an internet link that appeared with the article,
which was headed “Saudi Officials Monitor Certain Bank Accounts”. The
internet link enabled readers to find a so-called list of donors whose
money was said to have gone to Al Qaeda.

The list included the
name “Yousif Jameel”. Jameel claimed that this would be taken to mean
that he had been among the financial supporters of Osama bin Laden and
al Qaeda.

In the High Court Dow Jones sought to have that claim
struck out, arguing that only five people within the jurisdiction of
the UK courts, three from Jameel’s “own camp”, had used the link to
access the list of donors.

Dow Jones said that in those
circumstances Yousef Jameel could not demonstrate there had been “a
real and substantial” wrong committed against him in the UK.

However, Mr Justice Eady refused to strike the claim out on that basis.

The Appeal Court has now reversed that ruling and has struck out the claim as an “abuse” of the legal process.

Lord
Phillips said two questions arose. First, where there had been
worldwide publication on the internet, could a claimant justify taking
action in a country where publication had been minimal, on the ground
that it was “a good forum in which to seek global vindication”?

The
second question was: To what extent were the proceedings likely to
result in vindication? The judge said it was not legitimate for Yousef
Jameel to justify bringing proceedings in the UK on the basis they may
help vindicate him in respect of the wider publication.

More important were the Appeal Court’s findings on overall impact of the “libel” complained of by Jameel.

Here Lord Phillips said that the court considered that if the case went ahead it would involve “a lengthy and expensive trial”.

He
continued: “The trial will determine whether the publications made to
five subscribers were protected by qualified privilege. If they were
not, it does not seem to us that the jury can properly be directed to
award other than very modest damages indeed.

These should reflect the fact that the publications can have done minimal damage to the claimant’s reputation.”

He
said that if Jameel succeeded in the action, it could perhaps be said
that he would have achieved vindication for the damage done to his
reputation in the UK. He went on: “The damage and the vindication will
be minimal. The cost of the exercise will have been out of all
proportion to what has been achieved.”

“It would be an abuse of
process to continue to commit the resources of the English court to an
action where so little is now seen to be at stake.”

● In a
separate judgment the Appeal Court rejected a challenge by the Wall
Street Journal Europe to an earlier High Court dismissal of the
“qualified privilege”

defence it had sought to raise in respect of the claims against it by Mohammed Jameel and his company.

That case will continue in the UK.

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