HomeInsightsHigh Court awards claimant £45,000 damages in Twitter libel claim

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The claimant, publicly known as Jean Hatchet, is a feminist campaigner with a particular focus on violence against women and girls. She uses a pseudonym due to concerns for her and her family’s safety arising from threats of violence (including sexual assault) for her campaigning work. She uses the Twitter handle @JeanHatchet, which has between 9,000 and 14,000 followers. In 2017, Ms Hatchet started a series of sponsored bicycle rides to raise funds for a domestic violence charity, which she advertised on her Twitter account.

In October 2018, Ms Hatchet was a vocal opponent of proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to enable self-identification rather than medical certification to be the basis of a legal change in gender. She supported the rights of biologically female women and girls to single sex spaces.

Following publication by a small feminist campaigning group, Fair Play for Women, of a full-page ad in the Metro Newspaper to promote awareness of the Government consultation on the proposed legislative reforms and to encourage opposition to the provisions on self-identification, the defendant posted two Tweets contributing to the debate on the ability of a small campaigning group to pay for such an ad: (i) “Now you know where @jeanhatchet’s fundraising has gone !”; and (ii) “I raised this with her as my boss donated £1000 to her charity but the charity apparently only received a much smaller amount so she blocked me”.

Ms Hatchet issued proceedings against the defendant for libel, saying that the Tweets were politically motivated because of the defendant’s disagreement with her views on the proposed reforms. Judgment in default was entered in Ms Hatchet’s favour in July 2020. The defendant filed no evidence and did not attend the hearing on remedies and costs.

Senior Master Fontaine said that in a trial of remedies following a judgment in default, the court has jurisdiction to grant relief and award damages based upon the unchallenged statements of case.

Senior Master Fontaine said that the meaning of the Tweets, as pleaded by Ms Hatchet, was that she had dishonestly misappropriated charity funds and was guilty of theft. The words were inherently serious as they imputed criminal offences under the Theft Act 1986 or the Fraud Act 2006. Further, the Tweets were published on an unlocked Twitter account to the world at large; at the time, the defendant had 177 followers to whom the tweets were published. There was also evidence that the defamatory words had been retweeted and more recently disseminated.

Ms Hatchet claimed reputational damage on the basis of: (i) having lost followers on Twitter; (ii) being subjected to online abuse; and (iii) having suffered significant distress as a consequence of the Tweets, which attacked a central plank of her public identity and, in the light of her advanced and incurable ovarian cancer, her legacy.

Senior Master Fontaine noted that there is no precise arithmetical formula to apply to assess general damages in defamation, but that the court generally takes account of broadly comparable cases in previous decisions, making allowance for the effects of inflation. She also noted that this was not a trivial libel, but an accusation of theft, which had undoubtedly caused Ms Hatchet considerable distress. Ms Hatchet had shown that she was used to receiving abuse and “trolling” for her views, but the allegation of stealing from one of the charities that she campaigns to support was of a different order. The libel also had a likely consequence that those who would wish to support the charities for which she campaigns might be deterred from doing so.

Senior Master Fontaine said that the “percolation phenomenon”, i.e. “where scandalous stories published on the internet might spread far beyond their immediate publishees” as referred to in Cairns v Modi [2013] EMLR 8, was a legitimate factor to consider when assessing general damages. The evidence was that this had clearly occurred in relation to Ms Hatchet. However, Senior Master Fontaine also recognised that, although Ms Hatchet had a public presence, her public reputation was largely limited to those in the campaigning groups and that the publications were via Twitter rather than in national media.

Senior Master Fontaine found that an award of £45,000 in general compensatory damages was appropriate. This included an element of aggravated damages for the failure to acknowledge the publication, withdraw the same or to make any apology. Ms Hatchet was also entitled to recover her costs. (XXXX known as Jean Hatchet v Shanu Varma [2021] EWHC 1709 (QB) (28 June 2021) — to read the judgment in full, click here).