A woman who posted on Facebook about how she was strangled by her ex-husband has won a libel battle against him at the UK’s highest court.
The legal dispute started in December 2012 when Nicola Stocker, 51, of Longwick, Buckinghamshire, made comments about Ronald Stocker in an online exchange with his new partner, Deborah Bligh. She claimed the 68-year-old, from Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, had tried to strangle her.
The post read: “Last time I accused him of cheating, he spent a night in the cells, tried to strangle me.”
Mr Stocker took his ex-wife to London’s High Court over the comment and won a case in front of Justice Mitting, claiming anyone reading the post would think she meant he had “tried to kill” her.
Although the judge ruled Mr Stocker had “in temper” placed one hand on her mouth and the other on her neck in order to silence her with such force that red marks were visible on her neck to the police in an interview two hours later, he ordered Mrs Stocker to pay £5,000 in legal damages. Her legal costs are estimated to have escalated to more than £200,000.
After the ruling – which was later upheld by the Court of Appeal – a panel of five Supreme Court justices concluded that Mr Justice Mitting was wrong to have relied on the dictionary definition of “strangle”.
Speaking after the verdict on Wednesday morning Lord Brian 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.
During the High Court trial in 2016, the court heard that the allegations were published to 21 individuals access to the page. They were also visible to 110 of Ms Bligh’s Facebook friends and to their friends in turn.
Ruling in Mrs Stocker’s favour and ordering Mr Stocker to pay all legal costs, 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.”
The justices found Mrs Stocker’s defence of justification in the libel action was sound.
In a statement issued after the decision, Ronald Stocker said: “I am disappointed with today’s judgment after two previous courts found in my favour.
“I understand that in defamation cases the court has to make a decision on the meaning of the words used, and the supreme court has overruled the trial judge in this respect.”