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Stocker v Stocker – Supreme Court decision on meaning

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Supreme Court delivers ruling in Facebook post case: Stocker v Stocker

The case concerned a series of Facebook posts made by Mrs Stocker, the Defendant, on the Facebook wall of her ex-husband’s new partner, Ms Bligh, about the Claimant, Mr Stocker. The posts included a series of comments, the most contentious being “he tried to strangle me” in respect of which Mr Stocker commenced defamation proceedings against Mrs Stocker. He claimed that the words “..tried to strangle me” meant that he had tried to kill her. Mrs Stocker denied that the words bore such a meaning and claimed that they meant that Mr Stocker had grasped her by the neck, inhibiting her breathing. When it determined the meaning of the words complained of, the court was required to decide how they would be conveyed to an ordinary reader.

Stocker v Stocker: the first instance decision

The First instance judge, Mitting J, referred to the Oxford English Dictionary to establish the meaning of “tried to strangle”. “Strangle” has two meanings in the dictionary (1) to kill by external compression of the throat and; (2) to constrict the neck or throat painfully. Mitting J took the view that to strangle someone meant to painfully compress the neck and that having accepted evidence that tended to suggest that Mr Stocker had, in fact, grabbed Mrs Stocker by the neck in a constricting manner, reference to “trying to strangle” could, in circumstances in which Mr Stocker had strangled Mrs Stocker, only mean that Mr Stocker had attempted to kill her.

Stocker v Stocker: the Court of Appeal decision

The Court of Appeal subsequently dismissed Mrs Stocker’s appeal, with Sharp LJ holding that the use of dictionaries does not form part of the process of determining the natural and ordinary meaning of words. It was however argued that no harm had been done in this case as Mitting J had only used the dictionary definitions as a check.

Stocker v Stocker: the Supreme Court decision

Mrs Stocker sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. Yesterday, the Supreme Court held that by relying on dictionary definitions, Mitting J erred in his decision. Emphasis was put on the fact that in the context of a Facebook post, when determining the meaning of words complained of, it is both critical and necessary for the judge to keep in mind the way posts are read. Giving the leading judgment Lord Kerr states that the search for meaning should reflect that Facebook is a casual medium in the nature of a conversation, rather than a carefully chosen expression.

Allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court gave its own determination on what the words complained of meant. It held that “An ordinary reader of the post would have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck”. Her defence of justification therefore succeeded.

The Supreme Court’s decision will no doubt have been welcomed by many observers of this sombre dispute. Practitioners, however, may well envisage that the decision of the Supreme Court could present difficulties in particular for claimants who, in the future, wish to bring proceedings for defamation in respect of content published on social media. It is clear from yesterday’s decision that the Supreme Court is of the view that it would be wrong to engage in an elaborate analysis of a posting made to social media. Giving his judgment, Lord Kerr referred in turn to comments made by Warby J in Monroe v Hopkins at [42]. Claimants will be expected to give careful consideration to such content, the context in which it has been published and the defamatory meaning that is to be attributed to the same. Such is the nature of social media, that a court will expect a Claimant to take more of an impressionistic approach.

This case, therefore, adds to the ongoing commentary on how social media functions under defamation law. It would certainly be interesting to consider whether the decision of the Supreme Court would have differed had Mrs Stocker’s comments been published by a national newspaper.

Contact the Authors – Steven Hudson and Jessica Alden

The full judgment can be accessed here.