Insights

Defamation: Laurence Outfoxed

The actor-turned-politician now faces a £180k libel damages bill.

Laurence Fox has lost a High Court libel case with former Stonewall trustee Simon Blake and drag artist Crystal, whose real name is Colin Seymour.

Fox is the founder of the Reclaim Party and a member of the famous acting family dynasty.

He was ordered to pay Blake and Seymour £90,000 each in damages after he referred to them as “paedophiles”. Mrs Justice Collins Rice said the comments were “gross, groundless and indefensible”.

The comments were made on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, during an exchange about Sainsbury’s celebration of Black History Month.

Fox counter-sued the pair over tweets accusing him of racism, and he attempted to sue broadcaster Nicola Thorp for the same reason. After finding these tweets were unlikely to cause serious harm to his reputation, the judge dismissed the counterclaims without making a ruling on whether the allegation was substantially true.

Serious Harm

Under S.1(1) Defamation Act 2013, serious reputational harm is a pre-requisite of defamation.

In Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd & Anor [2019] UKSC 27, it was held that the serious harm test should be determined by reference to the actual impact of the statement and not just the meaning of the words. But the court acknowledged that inferences of fact could be drawn from the circumstances and the scale and gravity of the publication – including evidence that the publication came to the attention of identifiable individuals.

In accepting evidence from the claimants that they experienced Mr Fox’s libel as “distinctively homophobic”, Mrs Justice Collins Rice said in her written ruling:

“By calling Mr Blake and Mr Seymour paedophiles, Mr Fox subjected them to a wholly undeserved public ordeal. It was a gross, groundless and indefensible libel, with distressing and harmful real-world consequences for them. They are entitled by law to an award of money, to compensate them for those damaging effects, and to ensure that they can put this matter behind them, vindicated and confident that no-one can sensibly doubt their blamelessness of that disgusting slur and that they were seriously wronged by it.”

The judge also made clear that the damages were purely compensatory and that there was no element of punishment in the judgment.

Conclusion

The case shows how easily an ill-considered tweet can lead to severe real-world repercussions. The dangers inherent in escalating personal arguments and insults over twitter cannot be overstated. The immediacy of social media stands in marked contrast to traditional print publications, in which copy has to pass several layers of editorial oversight.

Fox suggested that his slurs were retaliatory, but his counterclaim failed as his reputation was unlikely to be seriously harmed – which of course begs the question as to whether previous self-inflicted reputational damage meant that he had less far to fall.

It is interesting also to note that in terms of the £180,000 compensation award, the judge made it clear that had the claimants not been as self-possessed, such damages could have been much higher.

As it is, Mr Fox could be found guilty of contempt of court if he repeats the allegations against Messrs Blake and Seymour. Failure to make payment of the damages awarded, plus legal costs, could lead to Fox’s bankruptcy.

Fox has indicated that he intends to appeal.

MSR Solicitors is experienced in handling defamation lawsuits. If you encounter such issues, please contact us.

*This article is not legal advice but provides a general overview. The specific details of your case will determine the best course of action.