Lord McAlpine wins first round in hearing for Twitter libel case

High court judge rules that peer's action against Sally Bercow for alleged defamatory tweets will be split into two stages

Lord McAlpine has won the first stage of his libel battle against Sally Bercow, the Commons speaker's wife, after a high court judge ruled that the trial should be split into two stages.

Lawyers for the Tory peer and former Conservative party chairman persuaded a high court judge on Tuesday to hear his libel trial against Bercow in separate hearings this summer.

Britain's most senior libel judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, ruled that the high court should decide first whether Bercow's tweet in November last year – "Why is Lord McAlpine trending *innocent face*" – was capable of being defamatory. If McAlpine is successful, a subsequent hearing will decide the level of damages.

McAlpine claims Bercow falsely linked him to an allegation of child sexual assault.

Speaking outside court, McAlpine's solicitor, Andrew Reid, was quick to claim victory. "Clearly the will of the court is not the will of Mrs Bercow," he said.

"The judge found himself to be somewhat baffled in dealing with her defence, and equally from the claimant's solicitor's point of view, we have found it very difficult dealing in this matter."

Reid added: "The issue is quite simple and the judge made it plain that a contested application as we heard today is virtually unknown."

Edward Garnier QC, for McAlpine, described Bercow as "more than a kitchen table blogger" and said she "has a bigger readership than many regional newspapers", in the first court hearing of the libel claim before a judge.

Neither Bercow or McAlpine appeared in court for the two-hour hearing, where it emerged that the Tory peer had rejected an offer to settle the dispute in November.

William McCormick QC, for Bercow, told the judge that she had offered to settle the claim but did not reveal the details. In return, McAlpine's barrister pointed out that he too had offered three times to settle the claim and prevent it going to court, but each one was rejected.

Garnier, the senior Conservative MP and former solicitor-general who is acting for McAlpine, urged the court to split the trial into two separate hearings so his client could bring an end to the issue.

"It is the wish of the claimant that this matter is got rid of as soon as is able," he said. "There is no question of this being spun out until Christmas; he wants this shot of."

It is expected that the first part of the libel trial will be heard in or before July.

McAlpine and his wife are expected to give evidence about Bercow's tweet when the case goes to trail.

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Josh Halliday

The GuardianTramp

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