The Supreme Court is looking at the case of a man who assaulted his wife and then sued her for libel after she posted the words ‘he tried to strangle me’ on Facebook. The High Court and Court of Appeal held that these words were defamatory despite finding that Ronald Stocker had assaulted his wife by placing his hands on her neck.
The case comes amid warnings of an ever-growing trend for perpetrators to use defamation law to silence those who accuse them of abuse as part of a backlash against the #MeToo movement – as reported here. Writing for the Guardian lsat week, Julie Bindell of Justice for Women commented: ‘[T]he door is open for wealthy men to use a range of legal mechanisms (such as super-injunctions and non-disclosure orders) as an effective way to shut women up.’
Nicola Stocker, 51, had befriended her ex-husband’s new girlfriend on Facebook. During a series of exchanges on the girlfriend’s Facebook wall, Mrs Stocker wrote: ‘Last time I accused him of cheating, he spent a night in the cells, tried to strangle me.’
The main issue for the court was the interpretation of the phrase ‘tried to strangle’. The Oxford English Dictionary contains two definitions for the word ‘strangle’: to ‘constrict painfully (of the neck or throat)’, and; to ‘kill by external compression of the throat’. Although defamation law is premised on the ordinary meaning of words, cases commonly come down to a judicial exercise of semantic interpretation. The trial judge, Mr Justice Mittering, held that since the police who arrived after the incident on 23 March 2003 had found handprints on Mrs Stocker’s neck, she could not have meant the first definition — Mr Stocker had not tried to strangle her; he had strangled her.
The judge held that ‘tried’ converts the sentence from the first meaning to the second, and that Mrs Stocker was libellously implying that her husband had tried to kill her.
In the original trial in 2016, the judge held that: ‘The most likely explanation about what happened is that he did in temper attempt to silence her forcibly by placing one hand on her mouth and the other on her upper neck under her chin to hold her head still. His intention was to silence, not to kill.’
Manuel Barca QC, representing Mr Stocker, said that the assault was of ‘a different order of magnitude’ to what Mrs Stocker had implied.
Mrs Stocker made several other comments about her ex-husband during the exchange on Facebook — she (accurately) wrote that Mr Stocker had been arrested three times, one of which was for ‘gun issues’ and another for the breach of a non-molestation order. He had also made threats, though not of direct violence against her. And Mr Justice Mitting noted that Mr Stocker had committed an offence against his ex-wife on 23 March 2003. He concluded that the “sting” of the allegations altogether had been to imply that Mr Stocker was a ‘dangerous man’. The fact that Mrs Stocker could not prove that her husband had attempted to kill her meant that this ‘sting’ was demonstrably false.
Arguing in the Supreme Court David Price QC, representing Mrs Stocker, alleged that this interpretation of dangerousness was inadequate. He raised the issue of why Mr Stocker was not found to be a dangerous man regardless of which dictionary definition of ‘strangle’ the courts found in favour with. The Supreme Court heard that Mr Stocker had gripped his ex-wife’s neck with sufficient force to leave red marks that were evident on her throat two hours later when the police arrived. As Mr Price QC summarised, ‘Men who put their hands round someone’s neck can justifiably be described as dangerous’.
The case of Stocker v Stocker comes against recent attention from campaign groups about how the crime of domestic abuse can be distorted or negated by defamation law and non-disclosure agreements.
Mr Barca QC argued that Mr Stocker’s behaviour was not ‘dangerous’ as his intentions stopped short of ‘a different order of serious harm’. Karen Ingala Smith, CEO of Nia and co-founder of the Femicide Census, has commented: ‘[S]trangulation is extremely dangerous and abusive. Anything that undermines the seriousness of strangulation, especially when sanctioned in law, is a green-light for men who abuse women.’
There is also concern that the threat of defamation resembles the coercive aspect of domestic abuse, whereby abusers attempt to persuade their victims that their understanding of an event is exaggerated or inaccurate. Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, describes this as ‘[A] a form of psychological abuse where the perpetrator manipulates their partner, can make victims doubt themselves, their memories and judgement.’
The case has also attracted criticism from campaigners for exposing a lack of understanding about the nature of domestic abuse as a distinct pattern of offending, what Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, has termed ‘the shocking ignorance amongst members of the judiciary of the realities of domestic violence’. At the original trial, the judge remarked that the impression he gained when first looking at the Facebook comments was that ‘there was a real possibility that he was dealing with a gangster’. The reasoning that Mrs Stocker, in alleging her husband had assaulted her, was simultaneously implying that her husband was a ‘gangster’, fundamentally misconstrues the nature of domestic abuse, argued Price. His point to the Supreme Court that the offence of domestic abuse is not a function of a more socially-identifiable kind of violent offending. Rather, domestic abusers are dangerous because and insofar as they abuse behind closed doors — and can do so with impunity.
As summarised by Mr Price QC, ‘The perpetrator of such serious domestic violence should not be able to come to court and argue libel and ask for damages.’