Neutral Citation No:  NIQB 35
Judgment: approved by the Court for handing down
(subject to editorial corrections)*
First named defendant;
Second named defendant;
Third named defendant
Fourth named defendant.
"Police are investigating the theft of goods worth £440 from Asda, Newcastle Street, Kilkeel on Saturday 10 October. Police believe the two females pictured above may be able to assist them with their enquiries. Police are asking these individuals or anyone who has information in relation to this incident to contact them on 101, quoting reference 1031 10/10/15 or VIU:1207/15."
"The said words referred to were understood to refer to the plaintiff, and were understood to mean to an ordinary observer that:
(a) That the plaintiff is a thief;
(b) That there are grounds to suspect that the plaintiff is a thief;
(c) That the plaintiff is the subject of a police investigation in relation to theft;
(d) That the plaintiff removed items from the store without making payment;
(e) That there are grounds to suspect that the plaintiff removed items from the store without making payment;
(f) That there is a police investigation into the allegation that the plaintiff removed items from the store without payment."
"(1) At any time after service of the statement of claim either party may apply to a judge in chambers for an order determining whether or not the words complained of are capable of bearing a particular meaning or meanings attributed to them in the pleadings.
(2) If it appears to the judge on the hearing of an application under paragraph (1) that none of the words complained of are capable of bearing the meaning or meanings attributed to them in the pleadings, he may dismiss the claim or make such other order or give such judgment in the proceedings as may be just."
"The importance of clearing the decks was emphasised by O'Connor LJ in Polypeck (Holdings) v Trelford  QB 1000 at 1021 when he said that one important principle:
'is that the trial of the action should concern itself with the essential issues and the evidence relevant thereto and that public policy and the interest of the parties requires that the trial should be kept strictly to the issues necessary for a fair determination of the dispute between the parties'."
"It is a difficult task for a court to strike a fair and proper balance between the right of a plaintiff in a libel case to rely upon any inferences which may correctly [be] drawn from the words published and the interest of a defendant in having the issues simplified to a proper extent and preventing the jury from being misled by prolix, repetitive or unsustainable assertions relating to meanings propounded."
"The legal principles relevant to meaning have been summarised many times and are not in dispute. … They are derived from a number of cases including, notably, Skuse v Granada Television Limited  EMLR 278, per Sir Thomas Bingham MR at 285-7. They may be summarised in this way:
(1) The governing principle is reasonableness.
(2) The hypothetical reasonable reader is not naïve but he is not unduly suspicious. He can read between the lines. He can read in an implication more readily than a lawyer and may indulge in a certain amount of loose thinking but he must be treated as being a man who is not avid for scandal and someone who does not, and should not, select one bad meaning where other non-defamatory meanings are available.
(3) Over-elaborate analysis is best avoided.
(4) The intention of the publisher is irrelevant.
(5) The article must be read as a whole, and any 'bane and antidote' taken together.
(6) The hypothetical reader is taken to be representative of those who would read the publication in question.
(7) In delimiting the range of permissible defamatory meanings, the court should rule out any meaning which, 'can only emerge as the product of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation…' (see Eady J in Gillick v Brook Advisory Centres approved by this court  EWCA Civ 1263 at paragraph 7 and Gatley on Libel and Slander (10th Edition), paragraph 30.6).
(8) It follows that 'it is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense.' Neville v Fine Arts Company  AC 68 per Lord Halsbury LC at 73."
"The sting of a libel may be capable of meaning that a claimant has in fact committed some serious act, such as murder. Alternatively it may be suggested that the words mean that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that he/she has committed such an act. A third possibility is that they may mean that there are grounds for investigating whether he/she has been responsible for such an act."
"In this case it is, I think, sufficient to put the test in this way, ordinary men and women have different temperaments and outlooks. Some are unusually suspicious and some are unusually naïve. One must try to envisage people between these two extremes and see what is the most damaging meaning they would put on the words in question. So let me suppose a number of ordinary people discussing one of these paragraphs which they have read in the newspaper. No doubt one of them might say – 'Oh, if the Fraud Squad are after these people you can take it they are guilty'. But I would expect the others to turn on him, if he did say that, with such remarks as – 'Be fair. This is not a police state. No doubt their affairs are in a mess or the police would not be interested. But that could be because Lewis or the cashier has been very stupid or careless. We really must not jump to conclusions. The police are fair and know their job and we shall know soon enough if there is anything in it. Wait till we see if they charge him. I wouldn't trust him until this is cleared up, but it is another thing to condemn him unheard'.
What the ordinary man, not avid for scandal, would read into the words complained of must be a matter of impression. I can only say that I do not think that he would infer guilt of fraud merely because an inquiry is on foot. And, if that is so, then it is the duty of the trial judge to direct the jury that it is for them to determine the meaning of the paragraph but that they must not hold it to inpute guilt of fraud because as a matter of law the paragraph is not capable of having that meaning. So there was here, in my opinion, misdirection of the two juries sufficiently serious to require that there would be new trials."
The court's assessment
Meaning (a) - That the plaintiff is a thief
Meaning (b) – That there are grounds to suspect that the plaintiff is a thief
Meaning (c) – That the plaintiff is subject to a police investigation in relation to theft
Meaning (d) – That the plaintiff removed items from the store without making payment
Meaning (e) – That there are grounds to suspect that the plaintiff removed items from the store without making payment
Meaning (f) – That there is a police investigation into the allegation that the plaintiff removed items from the store without payment