War of words
Wife cleared of libel despite saying ex-husband tried to ‘strangle’ her... because the term has two meanings!
IT has taken six years, a sevenfigure legal bill and a courtroom consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
But a woman who accused her ex-husband of trying to ‘strangle’ her finally won her legal battle yesterday over the precise meaning of her Facebook post.
Nicola Stocker, 51, made the allegation during an online row, triggering a libel case that ended in the country’s highest court.
She said her then-husband Ronald Stocker had ‘tried to strangle me’ during an assault in March 2003. The longrunning dispute over those four short words ended yesterday, when the Supreme Court ruled she had not meant Mr Stocker had tried to kill her.
The justices ruled instead that the phrase simply described him grabbing her throat. Mr Stocker, 68, is now likely to face a bill for at least £1million in legal costs, court documents show. His exwife’s allegation was levelled during a Facebook row with his new lover, Deborah Bligh, just before Christmas 2012. The couple, who have a son, had gone through an ‘acrimonious’ divorce more than two years earlier.
Mrs Stocker also claimed on social media that he had been removed from their Buckinghamshire home after making threats and that he had ‘gun issues’. Mr Stocker sued her for libel, saying she had implied that he had made an effort to kill her. The case reached the High Court, where Mr Justice Mitting called for the dictionary. It said that ‘to strangle’ meant either killing by external compression of the throat, or to painfully constrict the throat or neck.
The High Court judge said Mrs Stocker must have meant her husband intended to kill her and so her Facebook post was libellous. But yesterday the decision was reversed in a unanimous ruling by five justices at the Supreme Court. In the Christmas Facebook messages to Miss Bligh, Mrs Stocker said: ‘I hear you have been together 2 years? If so u might like to ask him who he was in bed with the last time he was arrested...’
A further posting from Miss Stocker said: ‘Wouldn’t bring it up last time I accused him of cheating he spent a night in the cells, tried to strangle me. Police don’t take too kindly to finding your wife with your handprints round her neck. But don’t worry you will get a nice watch for Christmas!’
Justice Lord Kerr said: ‘The fact this was a Facebook post is critical and it was necessary for the [High Court] judge to keep in mind the way in which such postings are made and read. It is unwise to search a Facebook post for its theoretical or logically deducible meaning. People scroll through Facebook quickly and their reaction to posts is impressionistic and fleeting.’
The Supreme Court justices ruled Mr Justice Mitting’s reasoning in the High Court had been faulty. Lord Kerr said: ‘He failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how an ordinary reader of the Facebook post would have understood it.
‘An ordinary reader of the post would have interpreted it as meaning Mr Stocker had grasped Mrs Stocker by the throat and applied force to her neck.
‘Even if Mrs Stocker’s allegations were considered not to have been established to the letter, there is more than enough to demonstrate that that defence should not fail by reason only that the truth of every charge was not proved.’
He added that Mr Stocker had broken a non-molestation order and had made threats to his former wife. This would make him ‘dangerous and disreputable’ in the eyes of many, Lord Kerr said.
‘Handprints round your neck’
Left: Nicola Stocker at court Above: Ronald Stocker with new love Deborah Bligh