civil defamation

In this article, Yash Kansal discusses the provision of civil defamation in Indian legal system.

Defamation

It is an injury to the reputation of a person i.e. harm made to the goodwill or character of an individual. Under English law, it is of two types’ libel & slander. Libel is a representation made in a permanent form which means it must be published whether through writing, printing, picture, statue etc. Whereas slander is a representation made in oral or transit form for e.g. by spoken words or gestures. In English law, libel is a crime and tort both whereas slander is only a civil wrong.

Defamation under Indian Jurisprudence

In India, there is no such distinction of the statement made whether orally (slander) or in permanent form (libel). Both are an offence as civil wrong under the law of torts and crime under Section 499 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 & its punishment is extended up to simple imprisonment of one year or fine of one thousand rupees or both under the code. However, it is the choice of the plaintiff whether he wants to file a civil suit for compensatory remedy or a criminal suit for punishment. In this article, you will read about essentials, defences and other important facts under civil law.

Who can file a suit for civil defamation?

In Harash Mendiratta v. Maharaj Singh [1], it was held that an action for defamation was maintainable only by the person who was defamed and not by his friends, relatives and family members.

Defamation refer to group of individuals

When a defamatory statement is made against the class of persons or group of individuals then it does not amount to defamation. Such as publication made against lawyers, doctors or any other particular class of society then no member of that group can sue unless he proves that the statement refers to him. (Knupffer v. London Express Newspapers Ltd.) [2].

Intention to defame

It must be noted that intention to defame is not necessary. It is immaterial that the defendant does not know the facts or he believes himself to be. If the injury to the reputation is made then the defendant will be held liable. In Morrison v Ritihie & Co. [3], the defendants by mistake published a statement that the plaintiff had given birth to twins whereas the plaintiff was married only two months back. Even though defendants were ignorant of this fact, they were held liable. But mere hasty expression spoken in anger or vulgar abuse to which no hearer would attribute any set purpose to injure the character would not be actionable (Parvathi v. Mannar) [4].

Essentials of defamation

  • The statement must be defamatory: It means, the statement must result in lowering the reputation or moral character of a person in the eyes of society or any other person. For instance, in P. Choudhary v. Manjulata [5], a local newspaper published a statement regarding desertion of a girl (Manjulata) who is 17 years old with a boy named Kamlesh after attending night classes. The statement was untrue and without any justification. Such publication also affected the reputation of her family as well as her marriage prospects so the defendants were held liable for the same. Sometimes, a statement or representation made is not defamatory & person making the statement believes himself to be innocent but due to some secondary or latent meaning statement results to defamation. For example, in a case of Cassidy v. Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd. [6], the court held that obvious innocence of the defendants was no defence.
  • The statement must refer to the plaintiff: If the statement made by the plaintiff is in good faith or he doesn’t intend to defame the plaintiff then he shall be held liable if it refers & injures the reputation of the plaintiff. In Hulton & Co. v Jones [7], a fictional article was published in a newspaper in which imputations were cast on the character of a fictitious person named Artemus Jones. A person with the same name filed a suit as his friends and relatives believe that the article referred to him. The defendants were held liable even the publication was made without any intention to defame.
  • The statement must be published: It means that the defamatory matter must come into the knowledge of the person other than the person defamed. If a letter containing defamatory statement sent to the plaintiff and no others person read it then there is no defamation. There must be communication to some third person to prove defamation. In Mahendra Ram v. Harnandan Prasad [8], the defendant wrote a defamatory letter in Urdu which is not known to the plaintiff. The letter was read over to him by a third person. It was held by the court that the defendant was not held liable unless it was proved that at the time of writing the letter defendant knows about the fact that plaintiff was unable to understand Urdu script and it would necessitate reading of the letter by a third person.

However, the following defences are available to the defendant against defamatory liability.

  • Truth: If the statement made or published is true and the defendant is able to prove the same then he has a complete defence under civil law. If the statement is substantially true & accurate but some minor mistake is made without any intention to harm the plaintiff then he cannot be held liable. Such as in Alexander v. North Eastern Railway Co. [9], the plaintiff was without a ticket and was sentenced to fine of one pound or 14 days imprisonment whereas in the notice by railway authorities it was published that the fine of one pound or three weeks imprisonment was imposed. The defendants were not held liable.
  • Fair Comment: Any fair comment on matters of public interest is a defence against an action for defamation. Matter related to public companies, courts, government administration, public representatives, public novels etc. are considered to be matters of public interest. If the comments were made after the conspiracy to cause harm to plaintiff by which he loses focus on his performance is actionable (Gregory v. Duke of Brunswick) [10].         
  • Privilege: There are two kinds of privilege i.e. absolute privilege and qualified privilege. In absolute privilege even the statement is false no action will lie against any person. This privilege is available in respect of Parliamentary Proceedings, Judicial Proceedings and State Communications. Whereas in qualified privilege there are certain occasions where the defendant is exempted from defamatory liability if the statement made is not false. For example, for self-interest a shopkeeper order his employee not to sell goods to a person named X as there is no reliability on his honesty for payment then the shopkeeper has done no offence.    

Conclusion

In my view, defamation is a serious offence as goodwill and reputation is earned during the passage of time. Injury to reputation lowers the image of a person in society and once it is harmed it cannot be regained. However, our law provides remedies under both civil and criminal law. Compensation of money might be not enough to the plaintiff but still, it is only remedy which is available in a civil suit.

References

[1] 2002 Cr. L.J. 2651

[2] (1944) 1 All E.R. 495

[3] (1902) 4 F. 654 (Scottish Court of Decision)

[4] I.L.R. (1885) 8 Mad 175, 180

[5] A.I.R. 1997 Raj. 170

[6] (1929) 2 K.B. 331

[7] (1910) A.C. 20

[8] A.I.R. 1958 Pat. 445

[9] (1885) 6 B & S. 340

[10] (1843) 6 M. & G. 205

{[1-10] with special ref. to law of torts by R.K. Bangia}

 

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