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The Katie Hopkins case – be careful what you tweet

A judgment in the Royal Courts of Justice provides further insight into how the Court treats Twitter and other online publications when considering the effect of a defamatory statement on a person’s reputation.

It also provides useful reminders for companies and individuals when communicating via social media.

What happened?

Katie Hopkins, a journalist and public figure, was ordered to pay £24,000 damages following tweets directed to Jack Monroe, a food writer.

The judge found the tweets to be defamatory and the claim met the “serious harm” threshold that the tweets had a tendency to cause serious harm to Monroe’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious to her, albeit, as the judge noted, the harm was not “very serious” or “grave” in this particular case.

What does this mean for me?

There are some useful lessons from this case and the judgment:

  • Companies and individuals need to be alive to the potentially wide publication of material online, where material can be shared and republished many times and sometimes to a wider audience than anticipated.
  • Tweets cannot be assumed to hold less weight than other online forums and publications merely because of their nature and ease of posting.
  • Simply deleting material online may not be enough. As this judgment demonstrates, the transience of a statement is judged by the impact of the message on the reader, not the period of time they were exposed to it.
  • Swift apologies and offers of settlement by a defendant are looked upon favourably by the court, and will reduce damages likely to be awarded.
  • The “serious harm” threshold introduced by Section 1 of the Defamation Act has arguably not raised the bar for defamation claims. Case law is demonstrating that evidence of harm is not always required. The court can simply infer that a statement which has a seriously defamatory tendency, having been widely published, will have caused serious harm. Getting over this hurdle in bringing defamation claims may not be as difficult as was previously anticipated by the change of law.
  • In circumstances which may give rise to a claim, companies and individuals should do all they can to preserve relevant documents and evidence.

How can Ward Hadaway help?

For further information on the issues raised by this update, in particular surrounding defamation, please get in touch.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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