What is defamation?

Legal English UK looks at the language and law around defamation in England and Wales. In light of high profile cases involving Johnny Depp and Elon Musk, how does our law differ compared to other countries?

If you write or say something untrue about a rich or famous person which harms (or defames) their reputation then you had better have a lot of money and access to a good libel lawyer.


There is a reason why the UK, and particularly London, has more than its fair share of cases involving defamation. In English law, I have to prove to the court that what I had written was true on the balance of probabilities. In the US, where free speech is protected by the constitution, the onus is on the claimant (the person who is seeking to clear their reputation) to prove that the statement is not true. It is a subtle difference but an important one.


Elon Musk's Libel Case

When Elon Musk made a derogatory comment on Twitter about a British diver, the case was heard in a Los Angeles court. Musk won the case. It is safe to say that courts in the US have given people a wide range of freedom to say what they want about whoever they want - something English courts never do.


In the winter of 2020, Johnny Depp sued The Sun newspaper over allegations related to his marriage with actress Amber Heard. The newspaper had suggested that Depp had attacked his former wife several times - an allegation denied by Depp.


The responsibility was with the newspaper group to prove to some extent that the allegations were true, which was why Amber Heard was called as a witness to confirm the allegations.


The Sun's owners won the case - and Johnny Depp will have to pay around £2 million in legal costs as well as enduring serious damage to his reputation.


What is Slander?

The cases mentioned above relate to libel - that's writing something that defames somebody's character. Most defamation cases relate to libel because it is easier to prove.


When we talk about slander, we are referring to spoken lies. Let's say that you start telling people that a doctor in your village is not qualified or a lawyer you know did not study with Legal English UK - that is slander.


It is more difficult to prove not only because there is likely to be less evidence but also because the claimant has to show that the slander has damaged their reputation (no such proof is required in libel actions).


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