What is defamation?

In civil law, a tort is a civil wrong for which monetary damages may be awarded to an individual by a court.Defamation comes under this heading as it is related to laws that protect the moral and professional reputation of individuals from unjustified attack.

What is the difference between libel and slander?

The general definition of a defamatory statement is that of a statement published or spoken which affects the reputation of a person, company or organisation. There are broadly speaking two types of tort where defamatory statements are concerned.  

The first is libel which occurs when a defamatory statement is written or in any similarly permanent form. Damages can be awarded for libel, unless the defamatory statement in question is protected by a defence in libel law.

The second is slander which occurs when a defamatory statement is spoken or in any transient form. There are two exceptions, discussed below, and the tort of slander is also liable to incur damages, unless a defence in libel law can be found.

The two exceptions to the above definition of slander are firstly, defamatory statements broadcast on radio or television and secondly, during a public performance of a play. These should be labelled as slander since they are spoken statements yet they are classed as libel (if not protected by a defence), under the Broadcasting Act 1990 and Theatres Act 1968.

The difference between the two is important because libel and slander have different requirements as to what a claimant must prove.

Does a defamation case have a judge and a jury?

Usually a defamation case will be tried by a jury. The exceptions are when both sides agree for the case to be heard by a judge without a jury or when the judge decides that a jury will complicate matters. This could be, for instance, because explaining the complexities of certain defamation cases to a jury of laypeople could be too time consuming.

Firstly in a libel case with a jury, the judge will rule whether or not the statement in question is capable of bearing a defamatory meaning. If the judge rules that it is, only then will a jury be called upon to decide whether or not the statement was defamatory. The jury takes into account the circumstances in which the statement was made e.g. the jury examines an explanation of the meaning of the exact words in the context in which they were originally used.

Finally, if the jury finds that the statement was defamatory they will then decide how much the publisher will pay in damages to the individual, company or organisation about whom the statement was made.

What definitions of a defamatory statement do judges use?

When judges explain the concept of a defamatory statement to juries, they say that it tends to do any of the following:

  • Expose the person to hatred, ridicule or contempt

  • Cause the person to be shunned or avoided

  • Lower the person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally

  • Disparage the person in his/her business, trade, office or profession.

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For more information on:

  • Is there any statement that is always classed as libel?
  • What happens when judges disagree over the definition of defamation?