We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Libel then and now

Libel actions. They’re things that only really, really rich people can indulge in aren’t they? At least, they are nowadays. But what about a hundred years ago? Here’s an example involving a building surveyor suing an architect.

Now, reading the article, it doesn’t sound as if the surveyor is exactly loaded. Yet he brings his case and (amazingly) wins it. By the way, the damages are about £10,000 in today’s money if you convert to and from gold.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Another example I found a few months ago was a small school bringing a case against a disgruntled parent. And I have spotted others. These are cases of not particularly well-heeled people – although, to be fair, not exactly poor people either – finding no great difficulty in suing for libel.

Two questions. One, have I got my facts right? Two, if I have, what has changed?

10 comments to Libel then and now

  • Alisa

    I don’t have anything informed to add, just would like to stress that I do hope that you keep this series going, Patrick – it is fascinating.

  • John Louis Swaine

    Chiefly what has changed is the cost of litigation. Regulation has been applied fairly poorly and ultimately access to the law in certain areas has suffered enormously.

    Of course the legal profession has been doing its level best to further entrench this state of affairs.

  • Quetion one, yes. At least the facts you found give a very similar impression to the facts I have found, which is an excellent definition of “right” in my book.

    I once thought I might have to defend a libel case, and looked up lots of stuff about it. Among the quite well known precedents is Byrne v. Dean (1921)

    where it was said that it could be defamatory for one worker on a strike to say that another worker (who had voted in favour of striking) had now changed his mind and started to work. This accusation exposes the Claimant to the suggestion of disloyalty and hypocrisy even though (one would assume) going to work is a good thing to do

    Presumably both parties were ordinary workers.

    Question Two, I don’t know.

  • Unsmit!

    Wow, Natalie, that’s even better. What we have lost, eh? Assuming libel laws are a good thing which is a big assumption. Although, I suppose if they do exist everyone should be able to use them.

  • Well, that’s a first – getting to unsmite my own comment.

  • David Bouvier

    As John Louis says – costs… which presumably breaks down into (a) the relative incomes of lawyers vs the rest of us, and (b) the complexity of the process that a case represents – two people turn up, argument the point infront of a judge and go home, vs. weeks of pre-trial paperwork.

    Just a guess..

  • Just a small correction to my comment of Dec 12 10:29. The case from 1921 I mentioned involving the two workers was actually called Mycroft v Sleight. My eye jumped a paragraph when making my earlier comment, and I gave the title of a separate case. That too seems to have involved fairly ordinary people, although they were rich enough to both be members of a golf club.

    I did make an earlier version of this comment, but I think it was eaten during the system change.