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Berkoff v Burchill

[1996] 4 All ER 1008

Case summary last updated at 17/01/2020 19:00 by the Oxbridge Notes in-house law team.

Judgement for the case Berkoff v Burchill

P sued D for describing him as “hideously ugly” in The Times. CA found for P, saying there could be defamation and the matter should be remitted to full trial. 

Neill LJ: test for a defamatory statement is something that would “reduce the respect with which P is held” or would “hold him up to contempt, scorn or ridicule or tend to exclude him from society”. This is judges by the reaction of the public, not the intention of the publisher, though the latter may colour the meaning. 

Phillips LJ: A simple statement of opinion that a person is ugly is not defamatory, but to state this in such a way as to hold someone up to ridicule is. This case falls into the latter category. 

Millett LJ (dissenting): “chaff and banter are not defamatory” and even serious imputations are not defamatory if no one would take them to be meant seriously. Defamation has never been satisfactorily defined. However there are illustrations e.g. that defamatory statements will damage someone’s reputations by causing people to shun or avoid him or bring him into ridicule. This does neither. It doesn’t cut him off, nor make him look ridiculous nor lower his reputation. To hold this as defamatory would be an unwarranted limitation on freedom of speech. People should be able to poke fun at each other without fear of litigation. There is a distinction between mere mockery and holding someone up for ridicule. This is for the jury to decide, but this case is clearly on the side of mere mockery. 

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