A woman who was sued by her ex-husband over comments made on Facebook that he ‘tried to strangle’ her has won her appeal, in a unanimous judgment handed down by the Supreme Court this morning.
Nicola Coates (formerly Stocker) had made the remarks against Reginald Stocker during a Facebook exchange in 2012. Mr Stocker brought an action in libel against his ex-wife and was awarded damages in 2016, a decision that was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. You can read about the Stocker case on the Justice Gap here.
The case was ‘a victory for common sense and for women who seek to warn others about men’s abuse’, commented Harriet Wistrich, director of Centre for Women’s Justice. ‘The original judgment revealed a shocking ignorance amongst certain members of the judiciary of the realities of domestic violence. We are appalled that a woman speaking out about an accepted incident of domestic violence was subjected to these court proceedings – it is another example of abusive men using the court system to perpetuate their controlling behaviour.’
In these two decisions, the High Court and Court of Appeal had reasoned that when considering the ‘singleright meaning’ of those words in the context of ordinary speech, readers would interpret the statement as alleging that Reginald Stocker had ‘tried to kill [her] by strangulation]’. The lower court primarily based its inference on the use of the first definition listed for ‘strangle’ in the Oxford English Dictionary – ‘an attempt to kill by external compression of the throat’ as opposed to a second definition – ‘to constrict the neck or throat painfully’. The trial judge concluded that as Nicola Coates had said that her husband “tried to” strangle her, but as she had not been killed, Nicola Coates logically was been implying that her husband had tried, unsuccessfully, to kill her.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court criticised the trial judge for confining the possible meanings of ‘tried to strangle’ to two alternatives. As highlighted by Lord Kerr in his judgment, by relying on a dictionary as the starting point of his judicial analysis, the trial judge had confined the semantic interpretation of Nicola Coates’ comments to two possible meanings and established them as alternatives. Therein, he continued, was the problem: meaning under libel law is neither to be determined by pre-emptively stable meaning, and nor is it to be determined out of context:
‘[M]eaning is to be determined according to how it would be understood by the ordinary reasonable reader. It is not fixed by technical, linguistically precise dictionary definitions, divorced from the context in which the statement was made.’
The Supreme Court ruled that an ordinary reader would fail to interpret the words in such a literal way. A reader would have regard to Nicola Coates’ other comments about her ex-husband’s actions, including that he had threatened her and breached a non-molestation order ‘sufficient to establish that he was a dangerous and disreputable man’. Taken together, Nicola Coates was saying that her husband was dangerous and this was the meaning that readers would grasp, the truth of which was sufficiently self-evident.
The judgment also focussed in on the fact that defamatory disputes such as these require an ever-closer attention to detail where comments are posted on virtual media like Facebook, where readers ‘do not pause and reflect’ but their responses are impulsive and impressionistic.
After the judgment was handed down, Nicola Coates commented:
‘This has been five years of my life fighting this case. The use of court proceedings to silence me has also effectively perpetuated his controlling and coercive behaviour. I hope this judgement and the costs consequences makes other men think twice before using the courts in this way.’
Nicola Coates would have been liable to pay a legal bill in excess of £200,000 had her appeal been unsuccessful.
Lord Kerr also commented on the treatment the trial judge had given Mr Stocker’s assault of his wife. The trial judge had heard police evidence that there were red marks on Nicola Coats’ neck when they arrived two hours later, and Reginald Stocker accepted that he had put his hand around her neck. At no point did Reginald Stocker allege that he had grasped his wife by the throat only to secure his hand around her mouth.
However, the trial judge held that Reginald Stocker had attempted to silence his wife by placing one hand on her mouth and another hand on her upper neck to hold her head still. This was a conclusion, Lord Kerr held, ‘more benevolent to Mr Stocker than any version of the facts which he could reasonably have advanced’.
Commenting on the case, Karen Ingala Smith, CEO of nia and co-founder of the Femicide Census, said:
‘We know from the Femicide Census that between 2009 and 2017, 285 women were killed though strangulation, of which 188 women were strangled to death by a current or former partner, that’s an average of one woman strangled to death every two weeks. It is the second most common method used to kill women in the UK…Whether used as a means to kill, frighten and/or control women strangulation is extremely dangerous and abusive.\