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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Mr Downton's unfortunate joke and modern freedom of speech

Back in the 1890s Mr Downton decided to play a joke on Mrs Wilkinson. He told her that her husband had been seriously injured in an accident and that she needed to go to him urgently. She suffered psychological damage – no surprise there! Mr Downton’s conduct was found to be outrageous and to be the cause of her harm or distress. Mrs Wilkinson succeeded in her claim for damages because –

  • He had willfully done the act causing injury,
  • There was no doubt that the act would cause distress and
  • He must therefore have intended this outcome.

This all sounds like the interesting basis of a University exam question. But the case of Wilkinson v Downton has been at the heart of a major decision of the Court of Appeal this week. It concerns the publication of a book.

Mr. A has written about his experience of childhood sexual abuse. That is nothing new. Many similar books have appeared in recent years and they have become a important encouragement for victims to come forward. They have also enabled the authors to articulate the horrors of their experience and have contributed greatly to the public understanding of what used to be hidden pain. Surely books like this should be encouraged.

But the spanner in the works is that Mr A’s own son suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, ADHD and other medical conditions. There is expert evidence that if the son was to read the book, it could have a massive effect on his mental health. It seems that Mr A and his ex-wife had agreed that they would try to prevent the son becoming aware of events in their lives which could have a detrimental effect. It was the ex-wife who brought these proceedings for an injunction, to prevent publication.

The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether there was any legal basis to even ask for publication to be blocked. There was no claim in negligence as a parent does not owe a child any duty of care in these circumstances. There was no law to prevent Mr A from publishing private information about himself. The Court of Appeal clearly had major concerns and felt that there should be a full hearing. So Mr Downton’s unfortunate joke came to the rescue.

Arden LJ said that the case of Wilkinson v Downton applied. 

Publication of the book is a deliberate act. It is highly likely to harm Mr A’s son. She described this as an obscure tort, but a tort none the less. So publication has been blocked for now, pending a full hearing.

This case raises an issue of great interest to us all. Where is the line between freedom of speech and the protection from harm? Any restriction on freedom of expression must be a concern. The facts of this case of unusual. But could the principle be used in relation to anybody who is likely to be traumatised by somebody else’s work. All that has been decided so far is that there is a right to ask for an injunction. Publication has been stopped for the time being. The final hearing will be watched across the world.

This case also demonstrates the power of our common law system. We do not have all of our laws written down in one place. Courts can look back at decisions made in the past – however distant – and use the legal thinking in a creative way to seek remedies to modern issues.

For those who are interested the full decision is here –


  1. Interesting article. I have a friend who works in the psychology department for children and she has helped me by giving me a better understanding of child sex abuse. I'm currently working on a novel centered around this topic and the research has been immense. It's not my favorite subject matter but an incident came to me in a dream so I had no other choice but to write this child's story.
    I'm new to your blog and found you through the Coffee Shop blogging.

  2. Thank you Gina. Good luck with the novel. Difficult but important subject...