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Knuppfer v London Express Newspapers [1944] AC 116

Action by individual member regarding libel on a class

Facts

Knuppfer (K) was the head of the British branch of the Young Russia Party. The respondents published a newspaper article in 1941 which alleged association between Hitler and the Party. Whilst K was not named individually in the article, witnesses at trial intimated that they understood the article as referring to K. K was successful in his libel claim at trial.

Issue

The Court of Appeal held that the words could not be regarded as referring to K and allowed the newspaper’s appeal. K appealed to the House of Lords. On appeal, K submitted that when a defamatory statement is made of a class of persons, an individual suit can be raised by those members of the class capable of being defamed by the statement. K submitted that the article particularly reflected upon him as a prominent member of the group in Britain.

Held

The House of Lords noted that it is an essential element of defamation that the words complained of should be published “of the plaintiff.” Viscount Simon held that the article, having regard to its language, could not be regarded, as a question of law, as being capable of referring to K. The trial judge had erroneously relied upon a question of fact i.e. the fact that K was capable of being identified by reasonable people who knew him as a subject of the article. Similarly, Lord Atkin held that in libel cases the key question was whether the words were published “of the plaintiff” as an individual rather that whether they were spoken of a class. The appeal was therefore dismissed.

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