HomeInsightsHigh Court finds that meaning should not be determined as a preliminary issue where the substantive defence is one of public interest

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The article in question, published on the Middle East Eye website, carried the headline: “Exclusive: UAE ‘funnelled money to Turkish coup plotters’”. The claimant, Mohammed Dahlan, contended that the article suggested that he was somebody who was funnelling money to Turkish coup plotters.

Mr Dahlan said that the natural ordinary meaning of the article was that he was guilty of the most serious criminal misconduct by being secretly involved on behalf of the UAE Government in funding and supporting the unsuccessful coup against the Turkish Government in July 2016. The case was listed to start on 18 November 2019 with a time estimate of up to nine days.

The application sought an order for a trial of preliminary issues of: (i) meaning; (ii) whether or not the words were defamatory; and (iii) justiciability.

The defendant, Middle Eastern Eye Ltd, argued a public interest defence under s 4 of the Defamation Act 2013.

Mr Justice Nicklin observed that generally it is preferable to resolve issues as to meaning as early as possible, particularly where there is likely to be a defence of truth because that defence and its parameters are governed by meaning. However, he said, meaning takes a much more subsidiary role when the principal defence relied on is public interest as it does not set the parameters of the defence in the same way.

If meaning were determined as a preliminary issue in this case, it would only have a significant outcome on the future conduct of the trial if the court decided that the words were not defamatory at all, in which case that would be an end to the litigation. However, if the court were to find any defamatory meaning, then the claim would proceed and it would have little bearing on the public interest defence, Nicklin J said.

Nicklin J said therefore that the best way of managing the claim, at this stage, was to leave all the issues to be resolved at the single trial. This would prevent the parties spending time and substantial costs arguing about preliminary issues that were separated from the balance of the issues to be resolved at trial, but which might not make any difference to the outcome in any event.

Nicklin J said that the parties would be able to put forward constructive suggestions at the Pre-Trial Review as to how the issues at the trial ought to be resolved, and the trial judge could also allow a sequential determination of the issues during the trial. The application was dismissed. (Mohammed Dahlan v Middle East Eye Ltd [2019] EWHC 2231 (QB) (25 July 2019) — to full judgment is available on the Lawtel website).

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