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Libel victory for ex-wife who said: 'My husband tried to strangle me'

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A woman who said on Facebook that her ex-husband tried to strangle her today won a landmark libel battle against him at the UK’s highest court.

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Nicola Stocker, 51, made the remarks about Ronald Stocker in an online exchange with his new partner, Deborah Bligh, in December 2012.

Mr Stocker, 68, won a defamation ruling against his former wife over the comments at the High Court in 2016. 

Mr Justice Mitting found that anyone reading the comments would think she meant he had “tried to kill” her. 

The High Court decision was later upheld at the Court of Appeal.

‘Cannot stand’: the Supreme Court overturned Ronald Stocker’s defamation case (PA Archive/PA Images)

But today a panel of five Supreme Court justices concluded the original judge made a legal error in relying on the dictionary definition of “strangle” when he found her post meant her ex-husband had “tried to kill” her.

Giving the ruling in London, 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. His decision as to the meaning of the Facebook post cannot stand.”

The decision will set a precedent for domestic violence cases. All five justices agreed the meaning of words on hastily read social media may be different from the clinically dissected, dictionary definition of a phrase.

Ms Bligh leaves the Royal Courts of Justice after giving evidence in the libel claim brought by her partner (PA Archive/PA Images)

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. 

The court heard the allegations were published to 21 individuals who had authorised access to the page. They were also visible to 110 of Ms Bligh’s “friends” and to their Facebook “friends”.

Ruling in favour of Mrs Stocker, of Longwick, Buckinghamshire, 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.

“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 should not fail.

Mr Stocker, of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, said: “I am disappointed with today’s judgment after two previous courts found in my favour. I understand 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.” 

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