High Court Rules on Defamation Reference in Bridgen v Hancock Case

Citation: [2024] EWHC 623 (KB)
Judgment on


In the case of Andrew Bridgen MP v Matthew Hancock MP, the High Court Justice considered a defamation claim revolving around a Tweet published by Hancock, which Bridgen alleged referred to him defamatorily. The court had to determine whether the particulars of the claim satisfied the requirements for reference in defamation law.

Key Facts

Andrew Bridgen, the claimant, is an MP who had the Conservative Party whip withdrawn on January 11, 2023, following his own controversial Tweet concerning COVID-19 vaccines. Matthew Hancock, the defendant, subsequently Tweeted about a sitting MP propagating anti-semitic, anti-vax, and anti-scientific conspiracy theories. Hancock’s Tweet did not explicitly name Bridgen, but Bridgen asserted that it was clearly referring to him. The court had to decide whether Bridgen had sufficiently articulated a case of defamation in terms of reference, as required by the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR).

Principle of Defamation Reference

The ruling provided a detailed exposition of the principles of reference in defamation claims:

  • Defamation “of and concerning” the claimant: The words must refer to the claimant for a defamation claim to succeed (E. Hulton & Co v Jones; Knupffer v London Express Newspaper Ltd).
  • Ordinary reference: A claimant may be identified if named or if the words used would lead persons acquainted with the claimant to believe they were the person referred to (Dyson Technology Ltd v Channel Four Television Corporation).
  • Reference innuendo: Claimants identifiable by particular known facts to certain readers require those facts to be pleaded (Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd; Gatley on Libel and Slander).

Striking Out Under CPR 3.4(2)(a)

  • The court may strike out claims that disclose no reasonable grounds for bringing the case, and it is determined based on the assumption that the pleaded facts are true.
  • Amending is preferred over striking out when a defect might be cured by amendment (Kim v Park).

Identification by Acquaintance and Innuendo

  • To attribute a meaning to an unnamed person, identification may be by particular facts known to individuals (reference innuendo) or by attributes known through acquaintance.
  • The claimant must plead the connecting facts that establish the link between themselves and the words used if it is not immediately clear (Duncan and Neill).

Admissibility of Evidence on Strike Out Application

  • Evidence is typically not admissible on a strike out application since it is based on the pleadings’ apparent merit. However, it may be considered when deciding if the claimant should be given an opportunity to amend the pleadings (Sussex v Associated Newspapers Limited).


The court granted the defendant’s application to strike out specific paragraphs deemed irrelevant to the claimant’s case on reference. However, the claim was not thrown out altogether. Instead, Justice Steyn DBE allowed Bridgen an opportunity to amend his Particulars of Claim to remedy the defects related to the pleader case on reference. Bridgen’s pleadings needed to comply with the guidelines for proving that readers of Hancock’s Tweet would have reasonably believed it referred to him.


In Bridgen v Hancock, the court underscored the significance of accurately pleading the case on reference in defamation suits. While it is incumbent upon the claimant to articulate a connection between the defamatory statement and themselves, the court reiterated the principle of allowing amendments in the presence of remediable defects. This case illustrates the delicate balance courts must maintain between dismissing groundless claims and permitting the rectification of potentially meritorious ones.