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 Images
Show Hide image

No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.