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In 2010, Rob stole a bicycle from Bob. Bob did not know whodoneit.

In 2020, Bob finds out that it was Rob. Bob obtains evidence sufficient to prove that beyond reasonable doubt.

However, the time to commence prosecution has passed.

Bob posts billboards across the town saying "Rob stole Bob's bicycle".

Rob sues Bob for defamation.

Does the inability to prosecute Rob renders the defamation case defenseless? Or can Bob defend himself from defamation claims by proving that Rob in fact did steal the bicycle, even though he cannot be charged with it anymore? Would the standard of proof be still "beyond reasonable doubt", or "preponderance of the evidence" since the defamation case is civil?

Any jurisdiction.

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Re: Any jurisdiction...

In , this scenario falls within the Defamation Act 2013

The burden is on Rob to show - on the balance of probabilities - that Bob's statements on the billboards have caused "serious harm" to his reputation.

s.1(1) A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

[...]

There are 6 statutory defences available to Bob, but the ones that appear relevant to the OP are at s.2 and s.3 of the 2013 Act.

TRUTH

s.2(1) It is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained of is substantially true

[...]

HONEST OPINION

s.3(1) It is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the following conditions are met.

(2) The first condition is that the statement complained of was a statement of opinion.

(3) The second condition is that the statement complained of indicated, whether in general or specific terms, the basis of the opinion.

(4) The third condition is that an honest person could have held the opinion on the basis of—

  • (a) any fact which existed at the time the statement complained of was published;

  • (b) anything asserted to be a fact in a privileged statement published before the statement complained of.

[...]

If Bob has obtained "evidence sufficient to prove that beyond reasonable doubt" I cannot see how Rob's claim would succeed if Bob can prove the statements to be true.

NB there is no statute of limitations for theft in England and Wales, but it may not be in the public interest to prosecute for low value items so long after the offence - each case will be considered in light its particular circumstances and merits.

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  • A couple of small points: if Rob took the bike not intending to keep it permanently out of Bob's hands (joy riding etc), then his offence is only s12(5) of the Theft Act 1968 and I think therefore has a time limit of 6 months for prosecution. Also: if Rob were convicted, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 removes the defence of "truth" from mentioning it after it is "spent" except in fairly limited circumstances. Jun 1 at 6:25
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Truth is a defense to defamation

Bob must prove the truth of his statement if Rob sues - there is a reverse onus for this defense. Because this is a civil trial the burden is balance of probabilities.

Provided Bob can prove Rob stole his bike he will win. A conviction for doing so is pretty good (but not necessarily conclusive) evidence. Absent that, Bob would need other evidence.

Of course, if Bob has said that Rob was convicted of stealing the bike, he’s going to lose.

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