Laurence Fox’s bid for a jury trial in ‘paedophile’ High Court libel battle fails

The former Lewis actor is being sued by ex-Stonewall trustee Simon Blake, Coronation Street actress Nicola Thorp and drag artist Crystal after a Twitter row in October 2020.

In turn, Mr Fox – who founded the Reclaim Party and unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for London Mayor – is counter-suing the trio over tweets accusing him of racism in an exchange following Sainsbury’s decision to celebrate Black History Month.

Fox went to court in April to ask for a jury – rather than a judge – to be selected to hear the defamation case.

The actor argued any judge picked to oversee the case would be open to accusations of “involuntary bias” because of guidance issued to the judicial on racism, whereas he said a jury would have “enhanced impartiality”.

Mr Justice Nicklin dismissed his argument as “somewhat nebulous”, rejecting the idea of heaping “enormous costs” on the case as a jury trial removes the ability of a judge to make preliminary decisions in the case.

“Jury trial effectively disables the court from performing any meaningful case management”, he said in the ruling handed down on Wednesday.

“Not only does that mean that a defamation action will cost more and take longer during its procedural and trial phases, it raises, as it always did, the spectre of the waste of enormous costs on the trial of issues that are ultimately found to be irrelevant.

“A return to such an inconvenient mode of trial would require the most compelling justification.”

Fox, through his barrister Alexandra Marzec, argued a jury would be better at reaching fair verdicts “in light of the cultural and social context of this case”, and suggested the arbiters of what is racist should be members of the public “assisted by his or her own life experience and knowledge of the English language”.

“All 12 people pooling their life experience and use of the English language to determine the natural and ordinary meaning of that word… A jury simply would be better at doing that task than one judge”, she argued.

However the judge highlighted an accepted legal principle that “judges are able to exclude irrelevant material from consideration” and whoever tried the case would not be swayed by the definition of ‘racism’ in legal texts.

“Perhaps more importantly, because the definition to be applied to ‘racism’ in this case is a core issue, necessarily the Judge deciding this issue will have to give a reasoned judgment on this very point”, he added.

“That is a better safeguard of avoiding error than directing a jury trial.

“Ms Marzec appeared to argue that the difficulty of challenging a jury verdict on this issue was a virtue. I disagree.

“The reason that a jury verdict is difficult to appeal on such a point is not because, being a verdict of a jury, it is in some way unassailable. Rather, unless the jury has given a narrative verdict, it is very difficult to identify whether they have gone wrong, and if so, on what issue.”

He said it would be “immeasurably easier” to challenge a judge’s error in the appeal court and Supreme Court, whereas a jury’s decision-making process would remain largely undisclosed.

In a statement after the ruling, Fox said he is “disappointed” with the decision.

“I believed this was an ideal case for a jury to sit, especially considering the emotive and zeitgeist issues in play.

“I think this places any trial judge in the invidious position of having to define ‘racism’ in the 21st century, where I am asking that judge to adopt a common-sense definition completely at odds with the Equal Treatment Bench Book, a document which dictates to judges to think about ‘racism’ in a particular way and act accordingly in their courts every single day.

“Nonetheless, I fight on and am confident justice will be served.”

Heather Rogers QC, for the three claimants, opposed the bid for jury trial, and told the court Fox says he was “using a rhetorical device” in the Twitter spat, rather than maintaining that there is any substance in the ‘paedophile’ slurs.

The next hearing in the libel battle has been set for May 26.

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