Suing for Defamation

As well as individuals, any trading corporation can bring defamation proceedings where the statement damages its business or trading reputation. Non-trading corporations can sue in respect of defamatory statements damaging their property or financial interests. It has been held that trade unions cannot sue, although the correctness of the decision has been doubted. In any event, individual trade union officers may bring an action if referred to. Bankrupts can sue for defamation and keep any damages recovered.

Groups without a legal identity cannot complain of libel. Therefore, victims of racism cannot get redress under defamation law where there is no pointer in the statement to an individual. Similarly, an unincorporated club cannot sue for libel, whatever the damage to its reputation, although individual members, if referred to, may. This will depend on whether the statement would be reasonably understood as referring to the claimant.

In 1993 the House of Lords ruled that government bodies cannot sue for defamation. This covers organs of local and central government including the Crown and government departments which have corporate status. They considered it was of the ‘highest public importance that a democratically elected body or any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism’. The decision expressly does not prevent an individual member of a governmental body from suing if the words complained of are capable of being understood to refer to that individual. The decision was, however, used to prevent a political party from pursuing a defamation claim.

Only the living can sue for defamation. If a claimant dies after bringing a claim for defamation but before a verdict has been reached, the claim comes to an end and does not continue for the benefit of his or her estate.


Public funding is generally unavailable either to bring or defend defamation proceedings. Some lawyers may be willing to act on a ‘no win-no fee’ basis.

Time Limits

A claim for libel or slander must be brought within one year of the date of publication. The court does, however, have the discretion to allow a claim to proceed outside this time limit if it considers it to be ‘equitable’. In exercising its discretion the court will take into account the length of and the reasons for the delay and the extent to which relevant evidence is likely to be unavailable or less cogent.
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