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Making accusations of a (serious) crime without evidence is, as far as I understand, illegal. If acusations are knowingly false, this is in fact a crime, of perverting the course of justice, otherwise one can be sued for libel.

What about specific, public accusations ("this person was killed by such and such means"), but with the perpetrator only vaguely specified? Like "someone in my extended family killed their parent, but I don't have solid evidence / Police refused to investigate"? What if, further, one provides some little detail, which narrows it down to a small few accused persons?

This is a hypothetical question.

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  • Hamilton Fraser states: Criminal libel was repealed in the UK in 2010, when the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into effect and abolished the offences of sedition and seditious libel, defamatory libel and obscene libel. "Suing" is action taken in the civil courts. Apr 21 at 11:04
  • However, Carl Beech was jailed in 2019 for making false allegations, fraud, and perverting the course of justice. Apr 21 at 11:12

3 Answers 3

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The answer from @kimeo is a very good one to the portion of the question related to UK defamation liability for a not expressly identified subject. I'll expand in this answer on a couple of other aspects of the question.

What about specific, public accusations ("this person was killed by such and such means"), but with the perpetrator only vaguely specified?

There are different ways this could be false, and different consequences. If the person was not killed and the claimed means by which the person was killed (e.g. imagine an embarrassing scenario involving a sex toy) would tend to damage the reputation of the person allegedly killed, the person allegedly killed might very well have a defamation claim against the person making the statement.

Dead people can't sue for defamation, however.

And if the claimed means of death were wrong but innocuous (e.g. the claim is that they were killed in a car crash that actually just seriously injured them, when they really suffered their injury in a slip and fall incident), there would be no basis for a defamation lawsuit.

False statements are not always a basis for legal action, particularly if the matter about which they are false is not material in context.

In the same vein, if someone says, "Sue is from Cornwall" and Sue is actually from Bath and has never even set foot in Cornwall and the speaker knows that fact, in all likelihood this isn't a falsehood with legal consequences in a defamation action.

Like "someone in my extended family killed their parent, but I don't have solid evidence / Police refused to investigate"? What if, further, one provides some little detail, which narrows it down to a small few accused persons?

Assuming that the parent died, and that the police indeed do refuse to investigate, I'm not certain that this would be an actionable on any basis.

While the initial statement X killed Y is facially defamatory if the identification of X is sufficient to determine who was being talked about, by saying "I don't have solid evidence" the child of the deceased parent is qualifying the statement about the alleged killer and essentially saying that even though his initial statement sounds like one of fact, he is actually really just saying that he has unsubstantiated suspicions that X killed Y, when you take the entire statement as a whole.

Unlike that unqualified statement that X killed Y, which would be defamatory if false or without any real basis for knowing that this is true or false, I am not at all convinced that once you disclose that you have a mere suspicion not backed up by any evidence in the same utterance, that the statement continues to be defamatory. You do indeed have a suspicion not backed up by evidence, so to that extent it is true. You aren't claiming to have more.

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In defamation, it's common for the statements at issue to be a bit "loose". There may be innuendo, use of rhetorical questions, deliberate vagueness, and many other devices that obscure the meaning. What matters in the end is how the words are understood by the ordinary reader: someone who is a typical reader of the publication, not unusually suspicious or credulous, not endowed with any special knowledge, but capable of reflecting intelligently and making reasonable inferences from the words before them.

For statements not naming the person directly, the Australian case of David Syme & Co. v Canavan [1918] HCA 50, 25 CLR 234, contains the same principle as in English law. (See for example the citation by Warby J at paragraph 15 of Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2015] EWHC 2242 (QB).) In Syme, a newspaper reported a statement from a soldier that "the Returned Soldiers’ No-Conscription League was only about 100 strong, and these individuals had been sent back to Australia as undesirables"; one of the League's members, Mr. Canavan, said that this was libellous. On appeal, Justice Isaacs said:

The test of whether words that do not specifi­cally name the plaintiff refer to him or not is this: Are they such as reasonably in the circumstances would lead persons acquainted with the plaintiff to believe that he was the person referred to? That does not assume that those persons who read the words know all the circumstances or all the relevant facts. But although the plaintiff is not named in words, he may, nevertheless, be described so as to be recognized; and whether that description takes the form of a word-picture of an individual or the form of a reference to a class of persons of which he is or is believed to be a member, or any other form, if in the circumstances the description is such that a person hearing or reading the alleged libel would reasonably believe that the plaintiff was referred to, that is a sufficient reference to him. But that is a fact, and it is a fact the burden of proving which to the satisfaction of the jury is upon the plaintiff.

It was therefore open to the jury at first instance to find (as they did) that the reference was too vague to mean Mr. Canavan specifically. As an extension,

If the words complained of do not, on their face, name the claimant, or contain enough other identifying information to allow a person acquainted with the claimant reasonably to conclude that the claimant is referred to by the words, then the claimant will need to plead and prove a case of "reference innuendo": that one or more readers knew certain special facts which would lead a reasonable person in their position to understand the words complained of to refer to the claimant.
(Alexander-Theodotou v Kounis [2019] EWHC 956 (QB) at 45)

In short, if a reader is capable of penetrating the non-specific language and realizing who is being talked about, then so is the law of defamation. If the language refers to several people, then it can still be defamatory of an individual who is a member of the group, depending on exactly how the group is described. This was part of the issue in Syme, where the statement was made about a large group (actually of about 1000 people in membership rather than 100) and in context it was not taken to mean that every one of them, or even most of them, were returned as undesirables.

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This falls under the Malicious Communications Act 1988:

(1)Any person who sends to another person— (a)a [F1letter, electronic communication or article of any description] which conveys— (i)a message which is indecent or grossly offensive; (ii)a threat; or (iii)information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender; or (b)any [F2article or electronic communication] which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature,is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.

As you can see from point (iii) it is quite a serious offense which can carry a lengthy prison sentence and heavy fine.

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    Thank you. I guess I'm thinking of a scenario where (1) I believe the information is correct, and (2) is only vaguely directed at specific people. Let's say I believe my brother (I don't actually have one) killed my mother and made it look like an accident. Then I say publically "A relative killed their mother and made it look like an accident". Does this apply? I believe my information is correct, so (a) (iii) doesn't apply. Also can my non-existent brother take action without admitting guilt?
    – Bennet
    Apr 22 at 19:48
  • Yes sir that's where plausible denial comes in to play. If you were told something in 'good faith' by a person or otherwise reputable source, and you weren't spreading it with malous or intent to cause distress or anxiety then you don't have to worry because the circumstance never arises where the legislation applies to you
    – Barb
    Apr 22 at 20:01
  • If you however wanted to spread, say - [gossip], you can not verify its source or validity why would you (by default) then want to automatically share that information? There is not a circumstance that could ever fit that category unless you are being nasty, which makes it a clever piece of legislation when interpreted
    – Barb
    Apr 22 at 20:04

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