Tuesday 2nd April 2024

Stone King has acted successfully for a defendant in an application for summary judgment of a defamation claim.

It follows Altus Education Partnership reviewing the ‘alternative provision’ provided to one of its schools, Kingsway Park High School in 2022. As part of its review, Mr Ronksley attended the premises of the Elaine Bain Family Trust (“EBFT”), an ‘alternative provision’ provider.

During his visit, Mr Ronksley noted various concerns regarding health and safety and safeguarding. Subsequently, two other Altus officers attended the EBFT premises to undertake a risk assessment. Following further communications between Altus and EBFT, Altus was not satisfied with the progress that EBFT had made on the safety issues highlighted and by way of a letter sent by Mr Ronksley on 23 November 2022 (“the Letter”), in his position as CEO of Altus, he terminated the relationship with EBFT. Mr Ronksley also sent the Letter to Cardinal Langley High School and Rochdale Borough Council.

The Claimant, Keith Courtney, the head trustee of EBFT, commenced a defamation claim against Mr Ronksley, in respect of the content of the Letter. Upon issuing the claim, Mr Ronksley made an application for summary judgment in his favour on the basis that Mr Courtney had no real prospect of proving that the publication of the statements complained of has caused or is likely to cause him serious harm, and there is no other compelling reason why the claim should be disposed of at a full trial.

In support of Mr Ronksley’s application, he obtained direct evidence from the third-party recipients of the Letter regarding their reactions to the Letter and their lack of association of the Letter with Mr Courtney.

Section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 introduced a statutory test that a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. Since the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013, there has been a long line of cases on the ‘serious harm test’ most eminently in the Supreme Court case of Lachaux v Independent Print Limited and Evening Standard Ltd [2019] UKSC 27. 

Giving judgment in favour of Mr Ronksley, Justice Collins Rice stated:

“There is no sign in the pleadings, in the evidence I have now, or in the evidence I have been given any sufficient basis for expecting at trial, that Mr Courtney has a case on serious reputational harm which meets the statutory threshold and which has a real prospect of succeeding. None of the direct evidence from or about the publishees supports a case that they thought seriously the worse of Mr Courtney as a result of reading Mr Ronksley's letter. No evidential groundwork has been laid for an inference of serious reputational harm, caused by the letter, in the minds of the direct, or any wider, readership………..”

The judgment of Justice Collins Rice follows the recent judgment of Justice Nicklin in Amersi v Leslie, in which Justice Nicklin stated:

“Unless the Court can be satisfied, by evidence, that there is a real prospect that the Claimant will be able to produce evidence in support of his claim of serious harm to reputation – whether by documents or witness evidence – then the Court is likely to dismiss the claim summarily at an earlier interim stage. It will do so, applying the well established principles of summary judgment, and in furtherance of the overriding objective, to avoid the potentially massive waste of the resources of the Court and the parties by speculatively taking the matter to trial to find out whether the relevant publication has caused serious harm to the Claimant's reputation.“

Both the judgment of Justice Collins Rice in this case and Justice Nicklin in Amersi act as a warning to claimants in defamation claims that there is a real risk that a defamation claim will be dismissed summarily if it is not possible to provide evidence at an application for dismissal or show there is a real prospect that such evidence will be produced at trial. The risk is more significant in cases of limited publication.

As Collins Rice J stated in the penultimate paragraph of her judgment, when the serious harm test was introduced it was Parliament’s intention to:

“………prevent the scarce and precious public resources of the senior courts from being occupied with defamation challenges to others' freedom of expression, unless objectively demonstrable real-life reputational impact can be established, on ordinary causational grounds, and to a proper threshold of gravity.”

Jonathan Copping and Zoe Libman at Stone King acted for the successful defendant, Richard Ronksley. Stone King instructed Claire Overman of Doughty Street Chambers.

The judgment can be viewed here.

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Stone King specialises in the sectors of Business & Social Enterprise. Charity, Education, Faith and Private Client law.