Theaker v Richardson [1962] 1 WLR 151

Claim of libel where husband opened defamatory letter addressed to wife


The defendant (R) wrote to the plaintiff (T) accusing her of, amongst other things, being “a very dirty whore.” T’s husband opened the letter thinking that it was an election address. At trial, the jury found that there was a valid claim of libel because R anticipated that someone other than T may have opened the letter.


R appealed and contended that the findings of the jury were perverse. R argued that there was no “publication” of the libel because the defendant could not have anticipated that T’s husband would have opened the letter. It was conceded that there was no publication other than to T’s husband. Thus, the key question was whether the libel was published where only T’s husband had read it.


The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. The trial jury’s finding could not be said to be perverse. The answer to the question of publication of a libel contained in a letter depends on the state of the defendant’s knowledge, either proved or inferred, of the conditions likely to prevail in the place to which the libel is destined. Further, the question of whether the opening and reading of the letter by T’s husband was something which could happen in the ordinary course of events was clearly one for the jury and not the Court. Judicial notice should not be taken of the fact that husbands read wives’ letters and the jury was entitled to consider R’s behaviour especially considering that he had no warranty for any of the scandalous things he had said in the letter.

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