A woman’s claim in a Facebook post that her ex-husband tried to strangle her was not libellous, the Supreme Court has ruled.
Nicola Stocker, 51, of Longwick, Buckinghamshire, made the remark about Ronald Stocker in an online exchange with his new partner, Deborah Bligh, in December 2012.
Mr Stocker, 68, of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, sued for libel at the High Court in 2016 and won the case after Mr Justice Mitting found that those reading the comments would think Mrs Stocker meant he had “tried to kill” her.
The ruling was also upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Overturning both those decisions on Wednesday, five judges at the Supreme Court in central London concluded that Mr Justice Mitting made a legal error by relying on the dictionary definition of “strangle”.
Lord Kerr said: “In consequence, he failed to conduct a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it.
“Readers of Facebook posts do not subject them to close analysis. They do not have someone by their side pointing out the meanings that might, theoretically, be given to the post.
“In view of the judge’s error of law, his decision as to the meaning of the Facebook post cannot stand.”
Lord Kerr said the “ordinary reader”, knowing Mrs Stocker was still alive, would “unquestionably” have interpreted the post as meaning Mr Stocker had grasped her by the throat rather than deliberately tried to kill her.
Twenty-one people had authorised access to the page and the post was also visible to 100 of Ms Bligh’s “friends” and to their Facebook “friends”.
Lord Kerr said: “It is beyond dispute that Mr Stocker grasped his wife by the throat so tightly as to leave red marks on her neck visible to police officers two hours after the attack on her took place.
“It is not disputed that he breached a non-molestation order. Nor has it been asserted that he did not utter threats to Mrs Stocker.
“Many would consider these to be sufficient to establish that he was a dangerous and disreputable man.”
Speaking after the court ruled in her favour, Mrs Stocker said she was “delighted”.
“It has been five years of my life that has been hell. The emotional and financial damage that it does is huge,” she said.
Harriet Wistrich, of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “We have been supporting this case and a number of others because essentially what these cases do is enable wealthy men to try to silence women through the libel laws.
“Strangulation, whether or not someone is meaning to kill, is a very dangerous act.”
Mr Stocker was ordered to pay all legal costs by the court.