Many disputes settle without the need for litigation and even when proceedings have been issued the majority of cases settle before they reach trial. However, the recent case of Mionis -v- Democratic Press SA & Others highlights the need for care when agreeing a settlement so that it does not go beyond what you intend to settle for.
In November 2013 Mr Mionis settled a libel claim against Democratic Press, a claim which he brought following the publication of a series of articles in a Greek language newspaper concerning Greek citizens holding bank accounts in Geneva for tax evasion purposes. The parties had resolved the proceedings by entering into a settlement agreement. One of the terms of that agreement prevented Democratic Press from making any reference to Mr Mionis and his immediate family, either in print or online, in any jurisdiction.
However, Democratic Press subsequently published two newspaper articles which, according to Mr Mionis, provided clues to his identity and that of his brother. Mr Mionis considered this to be in breach of the settlement agreement so he applied to the High Court for an injunction to enforce the terms of the settlement. The court rejected Mr Mionis’ application on the basis that the relevant clause in the settlement agreement was too vague and uncertain to be enforceable. Mr Mionis appealed.
At the appeal Democratic Press said that the court should uphold the earlier decision because the terms of the relevant clause were too wide (rather than too vague) and that the effect of Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (enshrining the right to freedom of expression) meant that it would be disproportionate and contrary to public policy to allow Mr Mionis to enforce the terms of the settlement agreement.
The Court of Appeal disagreed. In weighing up the right to freedom of expression against the contractual rights of the parties, it decided that there was nothing disproportionate on the facts in holding Democratic Press to their bargain and it granted the injunction sought by Mr Mionis.
The court’s view was that, although the parties had agreed contractual terms that were beyond the ambit of the dispute and even though the undertaking given by Democratic Press was very broad, this did not mean that those terms should not be enforced, particularly given that Democratic Press had entered into the settlement freely. Further, the court confirmed that for public policy reasons there should be finality in settlements.
This case demonstrates that the courts will be reluctant to overturn an agreement which has been freely entered into by the parties even in circumstances where it affects the right to freedom of expression of one of the parties.