What does the first judicial interpretation of the serious harm threshold tell us?

By Polly Wilkins

Earlier this year, the Sunday Mirror published an article that claimed that disreputable landlords were making money from tenants on social security benefits. Midland Heart Housing Association and its chief executive officer were cited in the article, where it was said: ‘Three more homes in the road where residents claim they have been portrayed as scroungers and lowlife by Channel 4 are owned by the Midland Heart Housing Association. Its chief Ruth Cooke, 45, earns £179,000 a year and lives in a large house…’

Two preliminary issues were heard: the meaning of the words complained of and whether serious harm had been caused or was likely to be caused.

The process for determining meaning has not changed under the new act. Mr Justice Bean did not accept either party’s pleaded meanings and adopted a middle ground — that Midland Heart was one of the well-off landlords letting to people in receipt of housing benefits, thereby making money from their misery, and that Ms Cooke was personally responsible for this conduct of Midland Heart and had become rich from it. It was this meaning that the judge then had to apply the serious harm test to…

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