Can a witness be sued for defamation in respect of false wording in a witness statement?

The defence of absolute privilege will usually apply in respect of allegations of defamatory wording contained in statements made in the course of judicial proceedings. If you are concerned about any statements you have made or of which you are the subject, our defamation team can assist.

What is defamation?

Defamation is the publication of a statement about an individual or company which has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the subject’s reputation. The defamatory publication will either be a libel or a slander.

  • Libel: relates to a defamatory publication which is permanent. Most obviously this includes written material (books, newspaper and magazine articles or material published online), as well as allegations appearing on TV or radio
  • Slander: relates to more transient publications, principally spoken words or even physical gestures.

The key element of a defamation claim is that the statement must have caused or is likely to cause serious harm in the form of serious financial loss (section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013).

Consequences of defamatory statements in a witness statement

Qualified privilege provides a defence to the publisher of a defamatory statement in circumstances where the publisher had a legal or moral duty to make the publication and where the publishee has a corresponding interest in receiving it.  If a defendant successfully establishes that a statement was made on an occasion of qualified privilege this offers a complete defence, unless the claimant can prove the statement was made maliciously (the statement was knowingly made dishonestly and for some dominant improper motive).

The defence of absolute privilege will usually apply in respect of allegations of defamatory wording contained in statements made in the course of judicial proceedings (Mr Mashood Iqbal v Dean Manson Solicitors & Ors (No 2) [2013] EWCA Civ 149). The rule of absolute privilege provides that no action will be brought against a witness for defamatory statements used with reference to the subject upon which he is called to give evidence. This privilege however does not extend to statements which have no reference at all to the subject matter of the proceedings.

In this case the High Court held that the witness statements produced by Dean Manson Solicitors were covered by absolute privilege. Mr Iqbal appealed the decision on the basis that the witness statements had “no reference at all to the proceedings.” and the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. Mr Iqbal claimed that the lower court had misapplied the relevant principles when it stated that the documents in question had “no reference at all to the proceedings.” The Court of Appeal, however, determined that although the statements in question had only a weak relevance to the subject matter of the proceeding, this was sufficient to satisfy the test and it could not be said that the documents as a whole had no reference at all to the subject-matter of proceedings.

Consequences of inaccurate statements verified by a statement of truth

In litigation, any statement of case or witness statement must be verified by a statement of truth. Part 22 of the Civil Procedure Rules sets out provisions for statements of truth.

Signing a statement of truth or allowing a solicitor to sign where you know that a document contains a false statement may lead to you being contempt of court (CPR 32.14).

Part VI of Part 81 of the Civil Procedural Rules contains rules about committal applications in relation to making, or causing to be made a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth.

Instruct expert defamation solicitors

We understand how damaging defamatory statements can be to an individual or business and we invite you to contact us so we can assess your claim. We can subsequently provide urgent help, advice or representation to clients whose reputation and privacy is at risk.

To instruct our specialist solicitors and barristers, please call our defamation team on 0207 183 0529 or email: [email protected]