High Court grants summary relief to claimant in Twitter libel proceedings and awards maximum damages

The claimant, Christopher Chandler, described himself as a business investor and philanthropist. In 2007, he co-founded the Legatum Institute, which he described as an independent educational charity and think tank.

Mr Chandler issued defamation proceedings against Arthur O’Connor in relation to two tweets that Mr O’Connor posted in May 2018, which stated inter alia that Mr Chandler was a “money laundering billionaire who founded the Legatum Institute to shape Brexit [and] has long been known to be employed by Russia”, and “His source of funds is no secret to the French press”, and that the Legatum Institute, was “one of Britain’s loudest advocates for a ‘hard’ Brexit, championing a position favoured by Putin”. Mr Chandler also sued in relation to a third tweet posted by Mr O’Connor in March 2019, which stated that Mr Chandler had sued Mr O’Connor “for tweeting information on [Legatum Institute’s] money laundering activities for Russia”.

Mr O’Connor did not file an Acknowledgement of Service and judgment in default was granted against him. Mr Chandler then applied for summary relief under ss 8-10 of the Defamation Act 1996.

Mr O’Connor did not attend the hearing for summary relief. However, Mr Justice Nicklin was satisfied that Mr Chandler had taken all practicable steps to notify Mr O’Connor of the application and the hearing, as required by s 12(2)(a) Human Rights Act 1998. The case was therefore suitable for summary disposal.

Assessing damages, Nicklin J found that the defamatory allegations made against Mr Chandler were serious. They alleged criminal money laundering and lobbying for a hard Brexit at the behest of a foreign state. Further, they were presented in a manner designed to enhance their credibility: that they had been established by third parties and were even “matters of record”. Overall, in their content and presentation, the Tweets were calculated to provoke strong feelings against Mr Chandler.

There was only limited evidence of the impact of the libel on Mr Chandler’s reputation and there was no clear evidence of the publication having caused damage to Mr Chandler. Further, there was no reliable evidence as to the extent of publication. The Tweets concerned had only recently been deleted and no steps were taken prior to deletion to obtain the analytics data from Twitter. Nicklin J noted Mr Justice Warby’s statement in Monroe v Hopkins [2017] EWHC 433 (QB) of the importance of preserving and obtaining Twitter analytics data in Twitter libel proceedings.

Nicklin J was satisfied that Mr O’Connor had adopted a dismissive attitude towards Mr Chandler and his complaint, which had aggravated the injury to Mr O’Connor’s feelings. He had refused, following an order of the Court, to remove the offending Tweets and had subsequently posted a further Tweet repeating similar defamatory allegations. In Nicklin J’s view, this conduct had increased the importance of the vindicatory element of an award of damages. Had this been a conventional damages assessment, the court would have awarded damages sufficient to mark the seriousness of the allegations and the absence of any effort by Mr O’Connor to defend them as true.

As for any mitigation of damages, it was true that Mr Chandler had received compensatory sums from two newspapers in relation to two articles they had published and from a company that had published a video on social media, all making similar allegations, but Nicklin J said that none of these publications contained allegations to the same effect as Mr O’Connor’s Tweets. Therefore, Mr O’Connor could not rely upon these sums in mitigation of damages.

Nicklin J concluded that, taking all of the above into account, an award of damages in excess of £20,000 would have been more than justified. However, Mr Chandler had elected to obtain summary relief and under s 9 of 1996 Act damages were capped at £10,000. Accordingly, Nicklin J made the maximum award.

Nicklin J also made an order under s 9(1)(b) of the 1996 Act ordering Mr O’Connor to publish a suitable correction and apology and, if the parties could not agree on the content, to publish a summary of Nicklin J’s judgment in accordance with s 9(2). (Christopher Chandler v Arthur O’Connor [2019] EWHC 3181 (QB) (22 November 2019) — to read the judgment in full, click here).