Case Summary: Sim v Stretch
Sim v Stretch  2 All ER 1237; 52 TLR 669, HL(E)
Trial: At trial, Mr. Stretch submitted two causes of action. Firstly, that Mr. Sim enticed Edith away from Mr. Stretch in order to work for Mr. Sim. Secondly, that the telegraph was a libel. The jury found in favour of Mr. Stretch for both submissions.
Court of Appeal: Mr. Sim appealed to Court of Appeal for the libel, however, the case was dismissed.
A housemaid named Miss Edith Saville was employed by Mr. Sim. Later, Edith was employed by Mr. Stretch, however, Mr. Sim convinced Edith to work for him again.
The Sim's sent the Stretch's a telegram which stated:
'Edith has resumed her service with us to-day. Please send her possessions and the money you borrowed, also her wages, to old Barton. - Sim'
The imputations were that 1) Mr. Stretch was in financial difficulties, 2) he had to borrow and he did borrow money from the housemaid, 3) 'he had failed to pay her wages', 4) and 'he was a person whom no one ought to give credit.'
'...whether the words in their natural and ordinary signification are capable of being defamatory.'
Principle: The test for whether an imputation is defamatory is: 'Would the words tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally?'
At page 671, Lord Atkin held with Lord Russell and Lord MacMillan in agreement:
Judges and text-book writers alike have found difficulty in defining with precision the word "defamatory." The conventional phrase exposing the plaintiff to hatred, ridicule, or contempt is probably too narrow. The question is complicated by having to consider the person, or class of persons, whose reaction to the publication is the test of the wrongful character of the words used. I do not intend to ask your Lordships to lay down a formal definition, but after collating the opinions of many authorities I propose, in the present case, the test : Would the words tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally ?
In applying the test, Lord Atkin reasoned that the people who were exposed to the telegram didn't have any knowledge of the Stretch's or the background facts (page 671). Further, Lord Atkin reasoned that it would not lower the reputation of Mr. Stretch by borrowing money from a housemaid as it was a small amount and it was promptly repaid.
Appeal allowed. Imputation held to not be defamatory.
I found the original case in The Times Law Reports volume 52, 1935-1936 at the State Library of Victoria in Australia.
[Image: Portrait of Lord Atkin]