In October 2013 the High Court granted an extension of the one year limitation period in a defamation case where the applicant (B) argued that the reason for the delay was that he had been unaware of an allegedly defamatory publication. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal on 30 October 2014.

The Libel claim

The application to extend the limitation period related to a libel claim against a well-known legal publisher (R1) and a company providing a subscription service to customers which included R1's reports (R2). B claimed that R1's case report summary published in October 2010, which was also available via R2's subscription service, inferred that B was a paedophile. The summary had noted the "inappropriate behaviour" of B, a foster carer, and his inability to provide care following a spoken judgment from the previous week. B maintained that he was unaware of the case report summary until October 2011 at which point he complained to both R1 and R2. R2 promptly removed the text from its website and, following discussions, R1 published an amended case report and correction in May 2012. B was dissatisfied with the response from R1 and R2 and issued a claim for defamation in February 2013.

The application for extension

The limitation period for defamation is one year from the date of accrual of the claim: for libel claims this is the date of publication meaning B's claim was issued 16 months after the end of the limitation period. Under section 32A of the Limitation Act, however, this period can be disapplied.

High Court (Bewry v Reed Elsevier (UK) Ltd [2013] EWHC 3182 (QB))

The High Court granted the application for extension on the basis that on becoming aware of the publication, whilst still unaware of the limitation period, it was reasonable for B to seek to negotiate a settlement rather than to commence proceedings. Further, the High Court found that while B's conduct was not prompt, it did not constitute a gross delay. R1 and R2 appealed this finding.

Court of Appeal (Bewry v Reed Elsevier (UK) Ltd [2014] EWCA Civ 1411)

The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision on the following basis:

  • There was no evidential basis for the High Court judge's finding that B had not initially been aware of the one-year limitation period. Further given the policy reasons underlying the one-year limitation period for libel claims, ignorance of the limitation period should not be a factor that carried any significant weight.
  • B had been involved in a considerable amount of litigation. R1 and R2 were therefore entitled to say that a sceptical interpretation of his evidence should be taken.
  • The High Court judge had failed to mention the delay after the libel proceedings were issued. However, post-proceedings delay was relevant factor in determining whether to extend in the limitation period under section 32A of the Limitation Act. The Act required the court to consider all of B's conduct from the date on which he had the relevant knowledge.
  • This failure by B to provide good reasons for the delays prior to and following the issue of proceedings meant the High Court judge was wrong to disapply the limitation period.

In addition, the Court of Appeal dismissed the libel claim on the basis that there had been a very small number of publications and therefore it could not be claimed that the libel claim had been brought to defend B's reputation - damages would be minimal and, in any event, the case report summary had been taken down a long time ago.

It should be noted that, in any similar case with publication taking place after the coming into force of the Defamation Act 2013 on 1 January 2014, the 'minimal publication' element would engage the new threshold rule in section 1 of the Act, that no claim will stand up unless 'serious harm' has been caused to the would-be claimant.

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