Written by, Marija Petkova
Updated September, 21, 2022
The average payout for defamation of character in the UK may not be in the millions (as was the case for the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial), but it should compensate the claimant for damages suffered. As such it depends on several factors, including the extent of damages caused, the nature of the defamatory statements and the credibility of the evidence presented.
In this article, we will tell you more about damages awards in defamation claims and whether or not it is worth your money and time to sue someone for libel in the UK.
But first, we need to sort out some basic terms.
The term ‘defamation’ or ‘defamation of character’ is used to describe an untrue statement, presented as fact, that causes ‘serious harm’ to the reputation of the person it refers to.
According to Section 1 of the 2013 Defamation Act, a statement is only considered defamatory when its publication has caused serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. This usually involves people thinking less of you, getting shunned or avoided or getting exposed to ridicule and hatred.
For companies, i.e. entities that trade for profit, ‘serious harm’ is defined as causing or likely to cause financial losses. This means that if a company sues someone for defamation, they have to prove that they have suffered financial losses as a result.
Libel and slander are types of defamation and fall under the same broad term, which is why many people tend to use them interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences between the two.
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There is no way to calculate an average payout as damages awarded for defamation in the UK depend on several factors and are unique to each case.
The main purpose of suing someone for defamation in the UK (and everywhere else for that matter) is to restore the claimant to the position they would have held had they not been defamed. This is also the initial measure of damages in a defamation case.
Other factors that impact the amount of damages awarded in a defamation case include
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The court also considers whether the statement was provoked by counter-libels or whether the claimant has been awarded damages for a similar statement in the past.
Note: You cannot be compensated for damages if you already had a bad reputation before a related defamatory statement was made. In this case, you might not be awarded any defamation damages or get less since you suffered less harm or injury.
At the moment, the ‘ceiling’ on libel awards is £300,000—per Mr Justice Warby’s in the Barron v Collins trial. Still, a defamation of character lawsuit in the UK has not come anywhere near that sum.
In fact, the highest award in damages in the last few years was £75,000 in the Turley v Unite the union (2019), where the defendant continued to publish the article without issuing an apology. The case was against an MP, adding even more gravity to the situation and resulting in a higher amount of damages awarded.
Some other notable defamation of character cases that won damages include:
Defamations don’t attract high-value settlements as opposed to other areas of law, despite being connected to big names and celebrities. This is because the entire purpose of a defamation case is to restore one’s reputation, which doesn’t always have to involve monetary compensation and can be achieved through other remedies.
In addition to defamation damages, other remedies awarded in libel cases might involve
Note: The Court can order to have the defamatory statement removed, but it cannot force the publisher to correct it or declare that it is untrue.
If you win, you can use the damages awarded to you (if any) to pay the relevant fees to solicitors and barristers, witnesses or experts, as well as success and services rendered charges.
If you lose, you will be required to pay solicitors’ fees out of pocket (these can range from fixed and hourly rates to percentage-based fees).
Note: Until a few years ago, solicitors involved in a defamation of character claim in the UK could act on a no-win no fee agreement which dictated that the success fee should be paid by the defendant if the case won. Now, however, the claimant has to pay the success fee out of the damages awarded.
The Pre-action Protocol for Media and Communications Claims governs defamation cases in the UK and offers a clear framework of how libel claims are brought and managed. The protocol encourages parties to exchange information early on and engage in mediation to prevent the case from going to court, if possible.
To bring a claim, you first need to issue a Letter of Claim, which will detail the relevant aspects of the case, after which the defendant will issue a full response accepting or rejecting the claim. They could also request for additional information to be presented.
As stated by the Defamation Act 1996, a person or business must put forward their claim within a year of the published defamatory statement. This applies even if the material continues to be re-published.
The limitation period will start over again if a new publisher posts the original content. The Court also has the power to extend the limitation period if necessary.
There are ways defendants can plead their case. These include
As stated in Section 2 of Defamation Act 2013, if a defendant can prove that the statement conveys truth, it won’t be considered defamatory. However, if the defendant doesn’t put forward solid evidence that this is the case, they will likely have to pay more in defamation damages.
A defendant can argue that the defamatory statement was an opinion rather than a fact. The comment, however, has to be based on actual facts stated or referred to in the publication, which the defendant has to prove to be true. The comments must also not be made with malicious intent.
The same applies if the statement in question is a comment on a matter of public interest.
There are certain circumstances where comments and statements are made that can harm a person’s reputation but are not foundations for a libel claim. These include statements made in Parliament or under oath in legal proceedings, as well as reports and remarks of parliamentary and judicial proceedings.
Even though most defamation payouts are nowhere near the ‘notional ceiling’ of £300,000, getting sued for defamation can still cost you a pretty penny. So, think before you post and double-check that your statements, especially on social media, are not misinterpreted, putting you at risk of litigation.
You can prove that a statement has caused damage to your character, caused you to be avoided or shunned or has exposed you to ridicule and hatred. In short, you need to prove that your reputation has suffered as a result of said statement.
It depends on the case, but in general, defamation cases are settled within seven to eight months.
The claimant must be identified in the defamatory statement, i.e. it must be clear that the publication refers to them. The claimant must also prove that the statement was made by the defendant. These are not hard to prove, although things get tricky when it comes to awarding damages as the court looks at several factors to determine the actual amount of damages awarded.
Although it is next to impossible to calculate an average payout for defamation of character in the UK, these cases do not come with high settlements. Actually, sometimes the cost of the claim might be higher than the damages awarded, so your best course of action would be to settle out of court or opt for another remedy, such as an injunction or apology, to restore your reputation.
My name is Marija, and I'm a financial writer at DontDisappointMe. Although finance might not be everyone's cup of tea, my 10+ years of working in one of the biggest banks in my country, and my interest in extensive research on everything finance/investment-related, have made me somewhat of an expert in the field (if I do say so myself). No longer having the passion to work in a corporate setting, I decided that I couldn't let all of this knowledge go to waste so I started writing. And, here I am! Today I try to share my knowledge with my audience in the hopes of making this topic as simple and interesting as possible. In my leisure time, I like spending time with my family and travelling to new locations.