Should companies be able to sue for libel?

Why there should be limits on the rights of “legal persons”.

Earlier this week, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voted down a powerful House of Lords amendment to the current Defamation Bill which would have made it far harder for companies to bring and thereby threaten libel actions in England and Wales.  It may well be that such a provision can be put back in; the minister appears to have made some concession to this effect.  But the vote raises a wider question of principle: to what extent, if any, should the law of libel look at humans and “legal persons” such as companies, and treat them just the same?

Human beings have legal rights, and there are things no person or group can do to human beings, without violating their legal rights.  Human beings also have obligations imposed by statute or the common law.  They can enter into and enforce contracts; they can hold and dispose of property; they can break the criminal law and be punished for doing so.  All this because the law regards human beings as “natural persons” with “legal personality”. And at law, as with dogs, personality goes a long way.

The law, however, does not only recognise natural persons.  It also recognises “corporations” as legal persons.  These entities do not actually exist, at least in any tangible way.  A Martian would not see them from space.  They are abstractions.  In the language of the law, corporations are “legal fictions”, which exist only to the extent that law allows.  In the words of one eminent old judge, corporations have "no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked".  There may be human beings who hold shares and act as directors, but companies themselves are affairs of the mind.

Nonetheless, corporations are highly convenient legal creatures, and they have been a feature of English law from early times.  For example, a so-called “corporation sole” such as a Bishopric could continue to hold property, separate to the person who happened to be bishop or whether there was a current bishop at all.  A local authority could use its corporate status to employ staff and buy land for houses. 

And corporations also became useful for commercial purposes, and these were usually called “companies”.  Instead of merchants and manufacturers trading on their own accounts, they could form companies to manage and allocate certain business risks.  If a company was unable to pay its debts, then the shareholders of the company could just walk away without personal liability.  It was a legal device to protect commercial interests by limiting the legal exposure of those involved.

For a long time, companies were frowned upon.  Even now the law requires that most companies need to have “Limited” in their name so as to warn others that the liability of the shareholders is limited.  Until Victorian times it was actually quite difficult to form a company for commercial purposes, and it often required a special Act of Parliament. But then the idea took off when new companies legislation was passed, and it was made possible for companies to be formed with ease. Companies swiftly became the norm in business life.

So familiar are we now with companies, it is forgotten just how artificial they are.  They are merely a way of arranging and managing certain legal relationships. That they have legal personality is a means to this end.  Legal personality allows companies to enter into contracts, hold property, and be subject to legal obligations in the same manner as natural persons. But all this is for the purpose of the human beings connected to those companies not personally having those rights, powers and obligations instead.

In respect of defamation, it is entirely true that companies can have reputations, and that those reputations can be adversely affected by things which are said by others. The real question is the extent to which companies should be able to maintain an action for defamation in the way a natural person can. Lots of things have a reputation but which cannot sue for libel: for example, a racehorse or a business technique. These can be disparaged, and loss suffered, but there is no remedy in defamation. Furthermore, the courts have held that “public corporations” cannot sue for defamation, and nor can political parties. So why the exception for private corporations?

Companies already have a formidable range of legal protections for their reputation. They can protect their trade marks and they can sue for “passing off” against counterfeiters and imitators. Companies are protected from inaccurate advertising and unfair business practices of their competitors.  They can bind their former employees to confidentiality. And they can sue in respect of deliberate lies under the tort of “malicious falsehood”. There are even the ancient rights of action in respect of slander to title (ie property rights) and to goods. In many ways, the law protects the reputations of companies far more extensively than it does the reputations of human beings. And, of course, directors and employees can sue for defamation their own names.

So what additional purpose is there in the general law of defamation protecting companies? Why should companies be able to sue for libel? It is certainly convenient for them, as it is easier to threaten a libel claim (where the onus is on the defendant to prove a defence) than it is for malicious falsehood (where the onus is on the claimant to prove both malice and falsity). And, in practice, companies have used defamation to effectively bully and chill their critics. Many City lawyers make their living from promoting “reputation management” to corporate clients. The law says that companies can only sue in respect of their “trading reputations” but, in practice, companies instruct their lawyers to issue libel threats for all sorts of criticism.

Given the range of legal protections already in place, there is a strong argument for the right of companies to sue for libel to be abolished. Any public interest in such a right existing is more than offset by the public interest in ensuring critics of companies not being subject to the chill of libel threats. Those involved in a company, after all, usually get the incredible legal privilege of limited liability; it would only be fair for such a privilege to be offset by the company facing the prospect of frank and uninhibited criticism.

During the recent libel reform debates, such an argument was mounted; but it failed to convince the government. However, the House of Lords passed an amendment making it difficult for companies to sue for libel unless they could convince a court at an early stage that the libel caused (or could cause) serious financial loss. The Lords amendment also made it impossible for private companies performing public functions to bring libel actions at all in respect of criticism of those public functions. This week, despite a spirited and impressive defence of these sensible protections by shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, the Lords’ amendment was lost. A watered-down version may still be re-introduced, but no one knows for certain.

Whatever the outcome of what is left of the passage of the Defamation Bill, there remains the issue of corporate power and how it is checked.  That corporations have power, and that this power affects the lives of natural persons – human beings – there can be no doubt.  That the corporations provide legal protections for those who are connected with the ciorporation is also true.  The question is the extent to which the use of corporations can be subjected to the frank scrutiny of others. Even if there is a case for saying corporations should be able to sue for libel, it certainly should not be easy for them to do so, unless they can show actual or potential substantial loss.

And corporations should never be regarded as analogous with natural persons; they are simply legal fictions – albeit useful ones - and should always be treated as such.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer.  He also writes the Jack of Kent blog.

 

(Legal) personality goes a long way. Photograph: Miramax Films

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.