05:06, April 03 60 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-03 05:06:06
Woman's 'strangle' Facebook post not libellous, say judges

A woman’s claim in a Facebook post that her ex-husband “tried to strangle” her was not libellous, the supreme court has ruled in a decision that will set a significant precedent for domestic violence cases.

All five justices agreed that the meaning of words on hastily read social media may be different from the clinically dissected, dictionary definition of a phrase.

The appeal had been brought by Nicola Stocker, who divorced her husband, Ronald, in 2012. Shortly afterwards, she requested and was accepted as a Facebook friend by his new partner, Deborah Bligh.

During a series of exchanges with Bligh, Stocker told her about her former husband, saying: “Last time I accused him of cheating, he spent a night in the cells, tried to strangle me.” The posting was seen by several other acquaintances online. Her husband sued for libel.

David Price QC, for Nicola Stocker, told the supreme court: “The phrase ‘tried to strangle’ is a common way of describing an assault involving a constriction of the neck or throat where the victim is alive … The phrase does not convey an intent to kill in ordinary language or in relevant criminal offences.”

At the first hearing in the high court, Mr Justice Mitting had focused on two dictionary definitions of the verb “to strangle” and concluded that Mrs Stocker’s Facebook comments meant that her husband had attempted to kill her.

Delivering judgment in the supreme court, however, Lord Kerr said: “[Mr Justice] Mitting fell into legal error by relying upon the dictionary definition of the verb ‘to strangle’ as dictating the meaning of Mrs Stocker’s Facebook post…

“In consequence, he failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it. Readers of Facebook posts do not subject them to close analysis. They do not have someone by their side pointing out the possible meanings that might, theoretically, be given to the post.

“Anyone reading this post would not break it down in the way that [Mr Justice] Mitting did by saying, well, strangle means either killing someone by choking them to death or grasping them by the throat and since Mrs Stocker is not dead, she must have meant that her husband tried to kill her.”

Kerr added: “It is beyond dispute that Mr Stocker grasped his wife by the throat so tightly as to leave red marks on her neck visible to police officers two hours after the attack on her took place.

“It is not disputed that he breached a non-molestation order. Not has it been asserted that he did not utter threats to Mrs Stocker. Many would consider these to be sufficient to establish that he was a dangerous and disreputable man, which is the justification which Mrs Stocker sought to establish.

“… Even if all all her allegations were considered not to have been established to the letter, there is more than enough to satisfy the provision in section 5 of the 1952 [Defamation] Act that her defence of justification should not fail by reason only that the truth of every charge is not proved, having regard to the truth of what has been proved.”

In a statement issued after the decision, Ronald Stocker, said: “I am disappointed with today’s judgment after two previous courts found in my favour. I understand that in defamation cases the court has to make a decision on the meaning of the words used, and the supreme court has overruled the trial judge in this respect.”

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