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.)

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.