26 May 2020


International Cases

Stocker v. Stocker

United Kingdom

03.04.2019

Civil

Where a range of meanings are available and it is possible to light on one meaning which is not defamatory, Court is not obliged to select non-defamatory meaning

The Respondent to present appeal, Ronald Stocker, is the former husband of the Appellant, Nicola Stocker. Their marriage ended in acrimony in 2012. Mr. Stocker subsequently formed a relationship with Ms. Deborah Bligh. On 23 December 2012, an exchange took place between Mrs. Stocker and Ms. Bligh on the Facebook website. In the course of that exchange, Mrs. Stocker informed Ms. Bligh that, her former husband (now Ms Bligh’s partner) had tried to strangle her.

Mr. Stocker issued proceedings against his former wife, claiming that, the statement that, he had tried to strangle her was defamatory of him. He claimed that, the meaning to be given to the words “tried to strangle me” was that he had tried to kill her. Mrs. Stocker denied that, the words bore that meaning. She claimed that, in the context of domestic violence, the words do not impute an intention to kill.

Where a range of meanings is available and where it is possible to light on one meaning which is not defamatory among a series of meanings which are, the court is not obliged to select the non-defamatory meaning. The touchstone remains what would the ordinary reasonable reader consider the words to mean. Simply because it is theoretically possible to come up with a meaning which is not defamatory, the Court is not impelled to select that meaning.

The primary role of the Court is to focus on how the ordinary reasonable reader would construe the words. And this highlights the Court’s duty to step aside from a lawyerly analysis and to inhabit the world of the typical reader of a Facebook post. To fulfil that obligation, the Court should be particularly conscious of the context in which the statement was made.

The fact that, this was a Facebook post is critical. The advent of the 21st century has brought with it a new class of reader: the social media user. The judge tasked with deciding how a Facebook post or a tweet on Twitter would be interpreted by a social media user must keep in mind the way in which such postings and tweets are made and read.

It is a legal error on the part of the judge that has opened the door to a re-determination of the meaning of Mrs. Stocker’s words. This is not a case of the appellate Court giving precedence to its view of meaning over that legitimately reached by the judge. To the contrary, it is the Court’s recognition that the meaning determined by the judge was reached via a route which was impermissible and having then to confront the question what meaning should properly be attributed to the relevant words.

In light of conclusion as to the correct meaning to be given to the words, “tried to strangle me”, Section 5 of the Defamation Act, 1952 must occupy centre stage. It is beyond dispute that, Mr. Stocker grasped his wife by the throat so tightly as to leave red marks on her neck visible to police officers two hours after the attack on her took place. It is not disputed that, he breached a non-molestation order. Nor has it been asserted that, he did not utter threats to Mrs. Stocker. Many would consider these to be sufficient to establish that, he was a dangerous and disreputable man, which is the justification which Mrs Stocker sought to establish.

Even if all her allegations were considered not to have been established to the letter, there is more than enough to satisfy the provision in Section 5 of the 1952 Act that, her defence of justification should not fail by reason only that the truth of every charge is not proved, having regard to the truth of what has been proved. Appeal allowed.

Tags : Defamatory statement Re-determination Words

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