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Trinity Mirror wins Benefits Street libel case in first test of new legislation

The first case brought to court under new legislation on defamation has been won by the Sunday Mirror over an article titled “Millionaire Tory cashes in on TV Benefits Street”.

The piece, which appeared on 26 January 2014, focused on a Paul Nischal, who the paper nicknamed “Goldfinger” and accused of renting out sub-standard property at excessive rents paid for through the housing benefit system.

However, the article also mentioned the Midland Heart housing association and noted that its chief executive, Ruth Cooke, earned £179,000 a year and lived in a “large house”. Despite the newspaper later printing an apology and altering the online version of the piece, both Cooke and the housing association sued for defamation.

In a judgement released this week, Mr Justice Bean rejected the argument that a “reasonable reader” would think that Midland Heart was being depicted in the article as a slum landlord and noted there was no evidence that the housing association had lost any contracts as a result of the report.

The case was the first hearing under the 2013 Defamation Act which introduced a requirement by litigants that they must show “serious harm” had been caused, or was likely to be caused by the publication of a story, a change that Justice Bean said “raises the bar over which a claimant must jump”.

Steve Kuncewicz, head of IP and Media at Bermans solicitors, told the Drum that libel lawyers had been waiting for eight months for a test case of the new law, which came into effect on 1 January.

He said that, for some, there had been an “impression that libel would die out, it absolutely has not, it is alive and well especially in the social media”. The change, Kuncewicz said, was designed to “weed out frivolous cases” as the new test of serious harm meant that litigants had to show they had been or would be damaged by any alleged defamation.

Asked if this would mean a drop in people suing for libel, Kuncewicz said that “social media had made people more aware of libel”, adding: “It’s in rude health.”

Asked for their response, Andrew Foster, director of governance for Midland Heart housing association told the Drum: "This is a very complex legal issue following recent changes to the law and at this stage we are reviewing the judgement and considering our options."

Trinity Mirror declined to comment.

Asked about the legal lessons that should be drawn from the case, Kuncewicz said that the fact the Sunday Mirror had both issued an apology and altered its online version of article had been one of the reasons given by Justice Bean for finding in the newspaper’s favour.

He also warned that despite the law change, libellous statements would still be treated seriously by the courts, especially if they occurred or were repeated online.