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Le Fanu v Malcolmson [1848] 1 HLC 637

Joint claim of libel by Irish factory proprietors against newspaper.

Facts

The Plaintiffs were the owners of various factories in Ireland. They raised an action of libel against newspaper publishers. The contentious publications concerned alleged ill-treatment of workers in the factories including excessive working hours and cruelty amounting to effective slavery.

Issue

At trial, the plaintiffs were awarded £500 in damages in relation to the claims. The case ultimately reached the House of Lords. The key issue in dispute concerned which factory owners had a valid claim of libel where the words complained of were directed against a class (i.e. all factory proprietors in Ireland). The plaintiffs argued that in action for libel by two or more joint plaintiffs it is necessary to show that the words complained of point to the plaintiffs, impute an offence and that it should appear manifestly to do them an injury by which they jointly suffer.

Held

The House of Lords held that where the defamatory publication applies to a class of individuals yet descriptions in such a publication are capable of being, by implication, applied directly to an individual in that class, then an action may be maintained by such an individual in respect of the publication. Accordingly, each factory proprietor had a valid claim where the defendant newspaper made a publication referring to practices “in some of the Irish factories” and this could be imputed to mean the factory of an individual plaintiff. Lord Chancellor Cottenham noted that it was necessary for the protection of the law to extend to such circumstances where the libellous publication is framed in broad terms but where the writer of the libel clearly intended to mean specific individuals.

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