John v MGN Ltd: CA 12 Dec 1995

Defamation – Large Damages Awards

MGN appealed as to the level of damages awarded against it namely pounds 350,000 damages, comprising pounds 75,000 compensatory damages and pounds 275,000 exemplary damages. The newspaper contended that as a matter of principle there is no scope in law for awarding exemplary damages, either generally or in the particular circumstances of this case, so that the question of exemplary damages should never have been left to the jury.
Held: Libel juries in defamation cases are to be given guidance on the level of damages by comparison with personal injury claims. In assessing the amount of an award of damages in defamation proceedings, a jury’s attention could properly be drawn to awards which had been approved or substituted by the Court of Appeal and to conventional compensatory scales of damages awarded in personal injury actions. This was not as a precise correlation, but as a check on the reasonableness of the proposed award. The award in this case was too high.
An allegation of racism is a very serious one, going to integrity and honour. Sir Thomas Bingham MR said: ‘The successful plaintiff in a defamation action is entitled to recover, as general compensatory damages, such sum as will compensate him for the wrong he has suffered. That sum must compensate him for the damage to his reputation; vindicate his good name; and take account of the distress, hurt and humiliation which the defamatory publication has caused. In assessing the appropriate damages for injury to reputation the most important factor is [a] the gravity of the libel; the more closely it touches the plaintiff’s personal integrity, professional reputation, honour, courage, loyalty and the core attributes of his personality, the more serious it is likely to be. [b] The extent of publication is also very relevant: a libel published to millions has a greater potential to cause damage than a libel published to a handful of people. [c] A successful plaintiff may properly look to an award of damages to vindicate his reputation: but the significance of this is much greater in a case where the defendant asserts the truth of the libel and refuses any retraction or apology than in a case where the defendant acknowledges the falsity of what was published and publicly expresses regret that the libellous publication took place. It is well established that [d] compensatory damages may and should compensate for additional injury caused to the plaintiff’s feelings by the defendant’s conduct of the action, as when he persists in an unfounded assertion that the publication was true, or refuses to apologise, or cross-examines the plaintiff in a wounding or insulting way. Although the plaintiff has been referred to as ‘he’ all this of course applies to women just as much as men.’
Sir Thomas Bingham said: ‘There could never be any precise, arithmetical formula to govern the assessment of general damages in defamation, but if such cases were routinely tried by judges sitting alone there would no doubt emerge a more or less coherent framework of awards which would, while recognising the particular features of particular cases, ensure that broadly comparable cases led to broadly comparable awards. This is what has happened in the field of personal injuries since these ceased to be the subject of trial by jury and became, in practice, the exclusive preserve of judges. There may be even greater factual diversity in defamation than in personal injury cases, but this is something of which the framework would take account.
The survival of jury trial in defamation actions has inhibited a similar development in this field. Respect for the constitutional role of the jury in such actions, and judicial reluctance to intrude into the area of decision-making reserved to the jury, have traditionally led judges presiding over defamation trials with juries to confine their jury directions to a statement of general principles, eschewing any specific guidance on the appropriate level of general damages in the particular case. While some distinguished judges (e.g. Diplock LJ in McCarey v Associated Newspapers Ltd (No 2 ) [1965] 2 QB 86 at 109) have considered that juries should be informed in broad terms of the conventional level of awards for personal injuries, not by way of analogy but as a check on the reasonableness of an award which the jury are considering, this has not been an authoritative view (see Cassell and Co Ltd v Broome [1972] AC 1027 at 1071). Even in the rare case when a personal injury claim was to be tried by a jury it was thought inappropriate that a jury should be informed of the conventional level of awards ( Ward v James [1966] 1 QB 273, 302), a striking departure from the modern practice when judges are sitting alone. Whatever the theoretical attractions of this approach, its practical disadvantages have become ever more manifest. A series of jury awards in sums wildly disproportionate to any damage conceivably suffered by the plaintiff has given rise to serious and justified criticism of the procedures leading to such awards. This has not been the fault of the juries. Judges, as they were bound to do, confined themselves to broad directions of general principle, coupled with injunctions to the jury to be reasonable. But they gave no guidance on what might be thought reasonable or unreasonable, and it is not altogether surprising that juries lacked an instinctive sense of where to pitch their awards. They were in the position of sheep loosed on an unfenced common, with no shepherd. While the Court of Appeal reaffirmed the fundamental soundness of the traditional approach in Sutcliffe v Pressdram Ltd [1991] 1 QB 153, the court did in that case recommend trial judges to draw the attention of juries to the purchasing power of the award they were minded to make, and of the income it would produce: see 178-179, 185-186, 190). This was thereafter done, and juries were reminded of the cost of buying a motor car, or a holiday, or a house. But judges were still constrained by authority from steering the jury towards any particular level of award.’


Sir Thomas Bingham MR


Independent 15-Dec-1995, Times 14-Dec-1995, [1997] QB 586, [1995] 2 All ER 35, [1996] 3 WLR 593, [1995] EWCA Civ 23, [1996] EMLR 229




England and Wales


CitedSutcliffe v Pressdram Ltd CA 1991
A 600,000 pound compensatory award was set aside by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that it must have been made on the wrong basis, almost certainly so as to punish Private Eye. The Court of Appeal could not substitute its own award for that of a . .
DisapprovedMcCarey v Associated Newspapers Ltd (No 2) CA 1965
References to damages awards in personal injury actions were legitimate in directing a defamation jury on quantum. . .
CitedTolstoy Miloslavsky v United Kingdom ECHR 19-Jul-1995
The applicant had been required to pay andpound;124,900 as security for the respondent’s costs as a condition of his appeal against an award of damages in a defamation case.
Held: It followed from established case law that article 6(1) did not . .

Cited by:

CitedGleaner Company Ltd and Another v Abrahams PC 14-Jul-2003
Punitive Defamation Damages Order Sustained
(Jamaica) The appellants challenged a substantial award of damages for defamation. They had wrongfully accused a government minister of corruption. There was evidence of substantial financial loss. ‘For nearly sixteen years the defendants, with all . .
CitedKiam v MGN Ltd CA 28-Jan-2002
Where a court regards a jury award in a defamation case as excessive, a ‘proper’ award can be substituted for it is not whatever sum court thinks appropriate, wholly uninfluenced by jury’s view, but the highest award which a jury could reasonably . .
CitedReynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd and others HL 28-Oct-1999
Fair Coment on Political Activities
The defendant newspaper had published articles wrongly accusing the claimant, the former Prime Minister of Ireland of duplicity. The paper now appealed, saying that it should have had available to it a defence of qualified privilege because of the . .
CitedGeorge Galloway MP v Telegraph Group Ltd QBD 2-Dec-2004
The claimant MP alleged defamation in articles by the defendant newspaper. They claimed to have found papers in Iraqi government offices after the invasion of Iraq which implicated the claimant. The claimant said the allegations were grossly . .
CitedCleese v Clark QBD 2003
The court looked at the calculation of damages after an offer of amends under the Act by the defendant.
Held: Such calculations have to be linked to the very different circumstances of each case. Comparisons with awards after jury trial were . .
CitedNail and Another v News Group Newspapers Ltd and others CA 20-Dec-2004
The claimant appealed the award of damages in his claim for defamation. The defendants had variously issued apologies. The claimant had not complained initially as to one publication.
Held: In defamation proceedings the damage to feelings is . .
CitedRowlands v Chief Constable of Merseyside Police CA 20-Dec-2006
The claimant succeeded in her claims for general damages against the respondent for personal injury, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, but appealed refusal of the court to award aggravated damages against the chief constable.
Held: . .
CitedJones v Pollard, Mirror Group Newspapers Limited and Bailey CA 12-Dec-1996
Articles in consecutive issues of The Sunday Mirror accused the plaintiff of pimping for the KGB, organising sex with prostitutes for visiting British businessmen and then blackmailing them. The defendants pleaded justification. The plaintiff . .
CitedMosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd QBD 24-Jul-2008
The defendant published a film showing the claimant involved in sex acts with prostitutes. It characterised them as ‘Nazi’ style. He was the son of a fascist leader, and a chairman of an international sporting body. He denied any nazi element, and . .
CitedMorrissey v McNicholas and Another QBD 26-Oct-2011
The claimant musician alleged defamation, saying that the defendant had accused him of being a right wing racist. The defendant now applied to strike out the claim as an abuse of process because of the claimant’s delay.
Held: The application . .
CitedCairns v Modi CA 31-Oct-2012
Three appeals against the levels of damages awards were heard together, and the court considered the principles to be applied.
Held: In assessing compensation following a libel, the essential question was how much loss and damage did the . .
CitedDhir v Saddler QBD 6-Dec-2017
Slander damages reduced for conduct
Claim in slander. The defendant was said, at a church meeting to have accused the client of threatening to slit her throat. The defendant argued that the audience of 80 was not large enough.
Held: ‘the authorities demonstrate that it is the . .
CitedHeil v Rankin, Rees v Mabco (102) Ltd, Schofield v Saunders and Taylor Ltd and Other cases CA 23-Mar-2000
The Law Commission had recommended that the general level of damages awarded for pain suffering and loss of amenity in personal injury cases should be raised. The Court now considered several cases on the issue.
Held: The court would do so. . .
CitedFlymenow Ltd v Quick Air Jet Charter Gmbh QBD 15-Dec-2016
Warby J awarded a claimant company general damages of pounds 10 for a libel suggesting that it was insolvent. . .
CitedTurley v Unite The Union and Another QBD 19-Dec-2019
Defamation of Labour MP by Unite and Blogger
The claimant now a former MP had alleged that a posting on a website supported by the first defendant was false and defamatory. The posting suggested that the claimant had acted dishonestly in applying online for a category of membership of the . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Defamation, Damages

Updated: 27 October 2022; Ref: scu.82542