My daughter's been insulted. Can I sue?

By Jonathan Goldberg, June 13, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

Renee from Leeds writes: I have just received a most horrible email. It is from the mother of one of my daughter`s best friends. My daughter just turned 15, and is a well-behaved girl and a fine student.
She attended her schoolfriend`s birthday party last weekend, to which many other boys and girls were invited. Unfortunately it seems to have ended up as a fairly rowdy affair. I think she can hardly be blamed for the fact that she is quite physically mature, and is exceptionally healthy and pretty. The girl`s mother has written to me saying my daughter was “dressed like a hooker” and “behaved like a slut” and that she does not want her to come to the house again. She then says I am “the type of mother whose behaviour sets a very bad example to her own daughter.”

There is no truth in any of this. Although I am a divorced woman and a single parent, I am proud to have brought up 3 lovely children all of whom are doing well in life, and I receive numerous compliments about them.

I have a responsible job, and a longterm boyfriend. He does not live with me -if that is what she is hinting at. I saw how my daughter was dressed when she left home to go to the party, and I saw nothing especially wrong or different from other kids of her own age. In my opinion, this mother is a very dowdy person with issues of her own. I am incensed, and I am thinking of suing for libel. My boyfriend says he will back me financially if I do. He thinks I have a strong case. Do I ?

Renee, if you take my advice, you will treat all this as a storm in a teacup. You should not dream of suing. Libel is defined as a statement published in permanent form (an email certainly qualifies in that respect) which is calculated to injure the reputation of the victim by bringing him or her into hatred, ridicule or contempt, or lowering them in the estimation of right-thinking people generally, or causing such right-thinking people to shun or avoid them.

However, as one great Victorian judge put it: “you cannot publish a libel of a man to himself.” In other words, for A to sue B for libel, B must first have published the libel to C. An email which was written to you about you, however vulgar, offensive or untrue the content was, does not give you any right of action whatever in law.

The only person who has a potential claim here is your daughter, as the insults about her were published to you. But here we run into a further problem. Since you were the only person to whom the email was sent, and since you plainly do not believe it, nor think any the less of her on account of it, nor will you shun her, she has suffered no damages. The monetary award would be nominal only. She would probably not recover her legal costs, since the judge would conclude you had made a mountain out of a molehill. If you yourselves have chosen to show this email to other people in your circle, it is you, not the girl`s mother, who is to blame in law for publishing the libel further.

I advise you to write back a stern but temperate letter, warning her that what she wrote about you and your daughter was defamatory and untrue, and that if she dares repeat any of it you will consider suing her.
You would be amazed how many enquiries I receive, where people are threatening to sue for defamation over all sorts of incidents. Their ardour often cools when I point out that of all legal actions, this is the most expensive and the least predictable in outcome. Even though the law presumes any defamatory statement to be untrue, and the burden of proving it is true falls always on the defendant, namely the other mother, the unexpected often happens. Ask Oscar Wilde in a bygone era, or Jonathan Aitken in this. That is why they wisely say: “Today`s newspapers are tomorrow`s fish and chip papers.”

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.GoldbergQC.com

Last updated: 11:13am, June 14 2012