Moss Rising awards of damages in libel actions?

In the Nineties a series of cases saw a reduction in the amount of damages awarded in libel actions. However, in a recent appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of Jamaica, the privy council has upheld an award of £533,000.

The Gleaner Company Ltd v Abrahams [2003] UK PC 45 was an appeal brought by Abrahams, a previous minister for tourism for Jamaica, against two Jamaican newspapers who had accused him of accepting bribes. Their defence was struck out, leaving the amount of damages the only issue. The Court of Appeal of Jamaica reduced the original award to the equivalent of £533,000, but the defendants appealed on the ground that the damages were still excessive.

In their speeches, their lordships confirmed that the test for determining whether an award of damages is excessive is whether a reasonable jury would consider the award necessary to compensate the plaintiff and re-establish his reputation.

However, the aspect of this case which will be of real concern to journalists is the bold position taken on the chilling effect of high damages awards. Their lordships held that the Court of Appeal of Jamaica was in the most appropriate position to determine the amount awarded and was fully entitled to support the view that high awards could act as a deterrent.

Although privy council decisions are not binding on English courts, they are highly persuasive. Their lordships saw no reason why in this case an award of £533,000 would inhibit responsible journalism.

Journalists will undoubtedly disagree.

However, their lordships emphasised their lack of knowledge of local factors. Such a high award from the English Court of Appeal would probably not receive the same benevolent treatment.

Ruth Moss is a lawyer in the technology, media and communications department at Lovells

by Ruth Moss

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