Defamation in the run up to an election

Judith Thompson

In the run up to a general election, there is a temptation for candidates to attack their opponents personally, as well as their policies. But what can be done if a candidate makes statements about someone else which are totally untrue?

Under the Defamation Act 2013, if a person makes an untrue statement about someone else, which causes serious harm to their reputation, this is libel (if it is written) or slander (if it is spoken). With the personal nature of the attacks which are often made during an election campaign, why aren't there more claims for defamation being brought by MPs and their opponents?

It is likely that the main reason, is that there is a difference between having the technical right to bring a claim for defamation, and it being advisable to do so. Suing an opponent for damages for defamation (libel or slander) would also be a time consuming diversion from the main issue at hand - trying to get elected.

There are statutory defences under the Defamation Act, which could well defeat a defamation claim relating to statements made in the heat of an election campaign. For example, it would be a defence to make statements about an opponent which were in the public interest. This would also be the most likely defence to be used by a newspaper or radio station reporting on what had been said in an election campaign. It also a defence to make statements that are your honest opinion. 

The Representation of the People Act also makes it possible for a candidate to obtain an injunction against another candidate, to stop them repeating false statements about their character or conduct. However, it is believed that such injunctions are relatively rare. 

There are examples of candidates taking action when their opponent makes untrue statements about them. In 2010, an MP attacked an opponent, saying that the opponent had tried to win votes from Muslim extremists. After a complaint to an election court, the MP's election win was declared void and he was disbarred from standing again for three years. 

Samuels Solicitors is a niche litigation practice with a particular specialism in dealing with libel and slander claims. Where a claim has good prospects of success, we are very often able to help clients with fees, by using a conditional (no win no fee) agreement.

Contact us today for a free discussion about how we can assist you.