HomeInsightsHigh Court awards damages of £100,000 in defamation claim brought by 18-year-old Syrian refugee against right-wing activist Tommy Robinson

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The claimant, Jamal Hijazi, a Syrian refugee who had recently turned 18, complained of two videos posted on Facebook by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in November 2018. Both videos showed Mr Yaxley-Lennon, a well-known public figure on the political right better known as Tommy Robinson, responding verbally to the dissemination via social media of a video clip showing an altercation between Mr Hijazi and another boy at his school, “B”, in which Mr Hijazi was pushed to the floor and held down by the throat by B (the Viral Video). The altercation was one of a series of bullying incidents of which Mr Hijazi was a victim.

In April 2020, Mr Justice Nicklin determined the natural and ordinary meaning of the words spoken by Mr Yaxley-Lennon in the two videos as:

  1. the first video: “the Claimant had (1) as part of a gang, participated in a violent assault on a young girl which had caused her significant injuries; and (2) threatened to stab another child”; and
  2. the second video: “the Claimant had, as part of a gang, participated in a violent assault on a young girl which had caused her significant injuries”.

Mr Hijazi contended that both videos were “viewed directly”, respectively, over 850,000 and 100,000 times.

Mr Yaxley-Lennon admitted publication of the videos, that they defamed Mr Hijazi at common law, and that their publication had caused serious harm to Mr Hijazi’s reputation. However, he said that, as Mr Hijazi was only identified by his first name in each video, he would only have been defamed to those people who watched each video and could identify Mr Hijazi by his name and would know that the comments were directed at him.

Mr Yaxley-Lennon relied on a defence of truth. He applied for permission to amend his defence to add a defence of public interest under s 4 of the Defamation Act 2013, but that application was refused. Mr Yaxley-Lennon’s defence of truth relied on various incidents in which he alleged that Mr Hijazi had: (i) made an unprovoked attack on a fellow female pupil with a hockey stick; (ii) bitten someone on the head in a group attack with three others; (iii) persistently bullied another child; (iv) been verbally aggressive towards female students and teachers; (v) threatened to stab B; (vi) stabbed a fellow pupil with a sharp-pointed object; and (vii) been caught in possession of a knife and screwdriver whilst in school.

Mr Yaxley-Lennon contended that the alleged incidents showed that Mr Hijazi had a propensity to use violence and was a bully. Nicklin J found that they established neither. Some of Mr Yaxley-Lennon’s witnesses were not credible and their evidence was not corroborated. School records did not record certain incidents, which they would have done had they happened. Nicklin J said that Mr Yaxley-Lennon had failed to demonstrate that Mr Hijazi had any propensity to behave in an aggressive or abusive manner towards girls and women and that much of the witness evidence was dishonest fabrication that fell apart under cross-examination. Further, much of Mr Yaxley-Lennon’s case depended on hearsay evidence consisting of video recordings he had made in which he questioned various people without them knowing that they were being recorded. Overall, the defence of truth failed, and judgment was entered for Mr Hijazi.

As for damages, to determine the reputational harm caused by the publications, Nicklin J took into account the fact that Mr Hijazi would not have been identifiable to every person who watched the video(s). Set against that, however, was the reality that the defamatory allegations would have inevitably spread more widely than the original publishees. Nicklin J also took into account the fact that Mr Yaxley-Lennon did not publicly withdraw the allegations he had made in the videos or apologise for them, maintaining throughout that they were true. In other words, there had been no mitigation.

Overall, Nicklin J said that Mr Yaxley-Lennon’s allegations against Mr Hijazi were very serious and were published widely. Mr Yaxley-Lennon had admitted that their publication had caused serious harm to Mr Hijazi’s reputation. The consequences to Mr Hijazi had been particularly severe. Although it was media attention on the Viral Video that had first propelled him into the glare of publicity, overwhelmingly that coverage (rightly) portrayed him as the victim in the Viral Video incident. Mr Yaxley-Lennon’s contribution was a deliberate effort to portray Mr Hijazi as being not an innocent victim, but a violent aggressor. Worse, the language used in his videos was calculated to inflame the situation. As was entirely predictable, Mr Hijazi had then become the target of abuse, which had ultimately led to him and his family having to leave their home, and Mr Hijazi having to abandon his education. Mr Yaxley-Lennon was responsible for this harm, some of the scars of which, particularly the impact on Mr Hijazi’s education, were likely to last for many years, if not a lifetime.

Nicklin J said that the most significant element of the damages award was the need for vindication. He said that the award of damages should mark clearly that Mr Yaxley-Lennon had failed to demonstrate the truth of his allegations. In fact, his evidence had fallen woefully short. He had, however, persisted with the serious allegations he had originally made, and had even added to them during the proceedings. Mr Hijazi had had to face them in the full glare and publicity of a High Court trial. To make clear that Mr Yaxley-Lennon had failed in his defence of truth, to vindicate Mr Hijazi, and to award him a sum in damages that represented fair compensation, Nicklin J awarded £100,000.

As for whether an injunction should be awarded, Nicklin J noted that after his Facebook account was closed Mr Yaxley-Lennon had not republished the videos, nor had he repeated the same or similar allegations. Based on the evidence at trial, Nicklin J was not satisfied that Mr Yaxley-Lennon had threatened to re-publish the allegations. However, in response to the draft judgment being circulated to the parties prior to it being handed down, the claimant’s solicitors and Counsel forwarded to Nicklin J a recording posted on social media by Mr Yaxley-Lennon just before they had received the draft judgment, in which he had referred to his intention to publish “the total evidence and proof” showing what he said Mr Hijazi “was like” and the “reality of what he had done”. In light of that recent evidence, Nicklin J said that he would hear further submissions about whether an injunction should be granted and, if so, in what terms. (Jamal Hijazi v Stephen Yaxley-Lennon [2021] EWHC 2008 (QB) (22 July 2021) — to read the judgment in full, click here).