High Court finds that a claimant could not pursue his libel case in relation to internet publication as England and Wales was not the centre of his interests

The first defendant, Groupe L’Express, is the publisher of the French language magazine L’Express. The second defendant, Guillaume Dubois, is the editor.

The claimant, Wafic Rida Saïd, is an investor, philanthropist and businessman from Syria, but resident in Monaco. He had also lived in the UK in the past and had close family and personal ties with the UK.

Mr Saïd issued libel proceedings against Groupe L’Express and Mr Dubois in respect of an article published in L’Express in May 2018 under the title “Le Diplomate aux mallettes de cash”, which translates as “The Diplomat with briefcases full of cash”. Essentially, the article alleged that Mr Saïd was improperly maintaining financial dealings with Syria notwithstanding and/or in breach of the international sanctions that restricted relations with that country. Mr Saïd sought damages and an injunction restraining further publication by Groupe L’Express of the defamatory allegations in print and online in the UK.

The defendants issued an application putting in issue the jurisdiction of the court to determine all or part of the claims against them.

Mr Justice Nicol observed that pursuant to Case C-194/16 Bolagsupplysningen OÜ v Svensk Handel AB [2018] QB 963, Mr Saïd would not be entitled to an injunction from the English courts to restrain continued publication of the online article unless his centre of interests was in England. Although an individual’s centre of interests will “in general” be the state of his habitual residence, Nicol J noted that it is open to a claimant to show that his centre of interests is somewhere other than the country where he has his principal residence.

Mr Saïd argued that he had close connections with England, as his family lived here and the Saïd Foundation, a charity founded by Mr Saïd, was based here, with offices and employees in London. Mr Saïd also argued that he had donated generously to many English institutions, notably Oxford University. Mr Saïd’s business, Saïd Holdings Ltd, although incorporated in Bermuda, had substantial connections with the UK. His family’s trusts owned property in London and Oxfordshire. He regarded Oxfordshire as his home when he was in the UK, which was for around three to four months of the year. Although Mr Saïd was resident in Monaco and also had connections with Canada and France he regarded his connection with England as stronger than that of those other countries.

Nicol J found that this was not enough. In Bolagsupplysningen, the ECJ spoke of the centre of interests of a claimant, not a centre of interests. The repeated use of the definite article strongly implied, Nicol J said, that an individual could not have more than one centre of interests. Nicol J also agreed with Groupe L’Express’s argument that for any particular individual there might not be any single centre of interests because a person might have such diffuse international connections that it would be impossible to identify any single country that could be described as his centre of interests.

The issue was not, therefore, whether Mr Saïd had some connections with this jurisdiction, nor whether he had a reputation here. The issue was whether England and Wales was the centre of his interests such as to displace the country of his habitual residence, Monaco, and, on the evidence, Nicol J was not persuaded that this was the case.

As for non-internet publication, Nicol J noted that Bolagsupplysningen concerned only publications on the internet. Even though Mr Saïd had not shown a good arguable case as to why the English courts had jurisdiction in relation to internet publication, that did not preclude him from pursuing a claim for an injunction in relation to publication in printed form. Although the efficacy of such an injunction would be limited, as Groupe L’Express could continue to make the article available via the internet, Nicol J was not persuaded that that was a significant difference. Therefore, the rest of the case was allowed to proceed. (Wafic Rida Saïd v Groupe L’Express [2018] EWHC 3593 (QB) (21 December 2018) — to read the judgment in full, click here).