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Defamation – no reasonable cause or satisfactory explanation for delay in issuing claim form – application to disapply limitation period refused even though defendants not prejudiced by delay

Steedman and others v British Broadcasting Corporation: CA (Lords Justice Brooke and Hale and Mr Justice David Steel): 23 October 2001

The claimants brought an action against a broadcaster alleging that a television programme broadcast more than a year earlier had been defamatory of them. In response to the defendant’s application to strike out the action on the ground that the cause of action was barred by section 4A of the Limitation Act 1980 (as substituted by section 5(2) of the Defamation Act 1996) which imposed a one-year limitation period for the bringing of defamation proceedings, the claimants applied under section 32A(1) of the 1980 Act (as substituted by section 5(4) of the 1996 Act) for an order that the section 4A time limit should not apply to the action. Although the defendant admitted that the delay had not prejudiced its ability to defend, the claimants’ application was refused. The claimants appealed.

Patrick Moloney QS (instructed by Gouldens) for the claimants, Manuel Barca (instructed by BBC legal department) for the defendant.

Held, dismissing the appeal, that the object of defamation proceedings was to enable parties to restore their reputation which they considered to have been damaged by the defendant’s defamatory publication as expeditiously as possible; that, since section 32A(2) expressly required the court to consider the length of, and reasons for, the delay, and despite the defendant’s admission that the delay had not prejudiced its ability to defend, the court would not exercise its discretion to disapply the limitation period where the applicants, without reasonable cause or satisfactory explanation for the delay, had failed to commence the action expeditiously to vindicate their reputation.

“Law Society’s Gazette” 6th December 2001