Sim v Stretch [1936] 2 All ER 1237

Libel; telegram; words capable of defamatory meaning

(224 words)


The claimant had a housemaid for a limited period of time, who re-entered the service of the defendant. Upon the maid’s arrival, the defendant sent the following telegram to the claimant: “E. has resumed her service with us today. Please send her possessions and the money you borrowed, also her wages to […]”.


The claimant sued for libel, arguing that the telegram included defamatory allegations – namely, that they implied financial difficulties on the claimant’s side (e.g. that he was forced to borrow, failed to pay the maid’s wages, etc.). The defendant denied that these words could be capable of constituting defamation in themselves or by innuendo.


Lord Atkin established a test in his judgment to decide whether words ‘in their ordinary signification’ were capable of defamatory meaning. Stating that the classic approach whereby the claimant is exposed to hatred, ridicule or contempt might be too narrow, he proposed the following test: “would the words tends to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally?”. If the words are found to be capable of constituting defamation, then it is for the jury to decide whether they were defamatory in the circumstances of each case. In the present case, the defendant’s words were found not to be reasonably capable of a defamatory meaning – so the claimant’s action was dismissed.