Longstanding client Triplark Limited has today received a predominantly successful judgment in the preliminary issues Trial in its defamation case against the Defendants, Northwood Hall (Freehold) Limited, Philip Whale and David Wismayer.
The Claimant, Triplark Limited, owns the freehold of the residential block, Northwood Hall, where a group of existing tenants led by the Defendants have sought to persuade other tenants to enfranchise.
Enfranchisement is a statutory process which enables long leaseholders to purchase the freehold from their landlord, provided over 50% of tenants agree to pursue enfranchisement.
The First Defendant is the company established as the collective enfranchisement vehicle. The Second Defendant is a resident and leaseholder at Northwood Hall and a director of the First Defendant. The Third Defendant has a background in property management and has had significant involvement in Northwood Hall’s management.
On 28 February 2019, Triplark Limited issued a claim for libel and malicious falsehood against the three Defendants in respect of two documents published by the First and Second Defendants in March 2018 to all leaseholders in Northwood Hall.
The purpose of the Preliminary Issues Trial is to make an early determination as to whether the words complained of bear defamatory meanings and if so, whether they are fact or opinion.
The Claimant contends that the words complained of were statements of fact which conveyed to readers a highly defamatory meaning, whilst the Defendants argued the publications were less serious and, in any event, were statements of opinion.
The Honourable Mr Justice Warby determined that both publications bore meanings that were defamatory and largely factual in nature. The impact of this is that the Defendants will have to prove their statements to be true, which the Claimant firmly contests.
In respect of the first publication, the ‘Invitation’, Mr Justice Warby extended the pleaded meanings to find 6 meanings about Triplark, 4 of which (namely meanings 1, 2, 4 and 5) he considered to either wholly or in part be both a statement of fact and defamatory.
The 6 meanings are set out in the judgment as follows: “In my judgment, the Invitation bore the following natural and ordinary meanings about Triplark: that it
- had been guilty of incompetence in its role as head leaseholder of Northwood Hall;
- had for decades deliberately neglected the maintenance of the property, thereby oppressing the leaseholders;
- had formulated development proposals for the roof of Northwood Hall that were insensitive, allowing leaseholders no say in the matter;
- knowing that many leaseholders would be unable or unwilling to take on the financial risks of contesting valuations before an independent body (the First Tier Tribunal), had taken the opportunity to demand premiums for lease extensions that were 10-20% above their true value, inflated, ramped up, and extortionate;
- in 2015, deliberately abused its own power and the weakness and lack of sophistication of some leaseholders to force them, in return for lease extensions, to pay substantial arrears of service charges which were disputed and which they did not owe, thereby blackmailing the leaseholders; and
- that there were reasonable grounds to fear that, if free to do so, the company would do the same again.”
The Judge found that the defamatory meanings arising from the first publication were largely factual in nature, setting out the minority of words that amounted to expressions of opinion.
In respect of the second publication, the ‘Letter’, Mr Justice Warby found that the Letter bore the following meaning:
“In a desperate attempt to defeat the Scheme and prevent leaseholders from exercising their legal rights, or delay it, Triplark has colluded with Crownhelm and Mr Maunder Taylor to use a leaseholders’ organisation (NWHLG) as a vehicle for a propaganda campaign by which the company seeks and will continue to seek to undermine trust in the defendants, by misleading, causing confusion, wasting time and resources, using disruptive tactics, and making outrageous allegations of criminality and deception against the defendants which are false, baseless and libellous.”
Mr Justice Warby found that, although many of the words in the second publication were taken to be statements of opinion, the basis for these comments were factual in nature.
Mr Justice Warby’s findings that the words complained of bore meanings of a defamatory and largely factual nature in respect of both publications marks a successful stage in Triplark’s defamation case.
A fuller analysis of this preliminary issue can be found at the Inforrm media law blog.
Enquiries to Christopher Hutchings.