Friday, 2 April 2010

British Chiropractic Association v Singh [2010] EWCA Civ 350 (01 April 2010)

British Chiropractic Association v Singh [2010] EWCA Civ 350 (01 April 2010)
This is the actual judgment of the Court of Appeal. Some items of interest and the result. Its not a long judgment, and the litigation is not over although this may end it, depending on whether the BCAP go to the Supreme Court. I think they would be foolish, but then who knows? They may feel that the survival of chiropractic depends on this. I am with Dr Singh's view-it is a dubious  branch of treatment. Now please have a go at the homeopaths!

    The litigation
  1. If, like many trade and professional associations, the BCA was not incorporated but consisted simply of the totality of its members, neither individually nor collectively would they have had standing to sue. Some corporations – municipal ones, for example - also lack standing to sue in defamation. The BCA is not subject to either of these disadvantages. If the present claim is well founded in law, the BCA is entitled to pursue it. Moreover, as the law presently stands, it was entitled, for its own reasons, to reject the opportunity fairly offered to it by the Guardian to take issue with and refute the criticisms expressed by Dr Singh and to demonstrate the fallacy of his opinions. Instead the BCA sued Dr Singh, but not the Guardian, for libel.
  2. It is now nearly two years since the publication of the offending article. It seems unlikely that anyone would dare repeat the opinions expressed by Dr Singh for fear of a writ. Accordingly this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic. If so, quite apart from any public interest in issues of legal principle which arise in the present proceedings, the questions raised by Dr Singh, which have a direct resonance for patients, are unresolved. This would be a surprising consequence of laws designed to protect reputation.
  3. By proceeding against Dr Singh, and not the Guardian, and by rejecting the offer made by the Guardian to publish an appropriate article refuting Dr Singh's contentions, or putting them in a proper prospective, the unhappy impression has been created that this is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics. Again, if that is where the current law of defamation takes us, we must apply it.

    1. However this may be, we consider that the judge erred in his approach to the need for justification by treating the statement that there was not a jot of evidence to support the BCA's claims as an assertion of fact. It was in our judgment a statement of opinion, and one backed by reasons.
    2. We would respectfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy, Underwager v Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730 (1994):
    3. "[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying 'character assassination!', silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs' interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us."
    4. In an area of law concerned with sometimes conflicting issues of great sensitivity involving both the protection of good reputation and the maintenance of the principles of free expression, it is somewhat alarming to read in the standard textbook on the Law of Libel and Slander (Gatley, 11th edition) in relation to the defence of fair comment, which is said to be a "bulwark of free speech", that "…the law here is dogged by misleading terminology… 'Comment' or 'honest comment' or 'honest opinion' would be a better name, but the traditional terminology is so well established in England that it is adhered to here".
    5. We question why this should be so. The law of defamation surely requires that language should not be used which obscures the true import of a defence to an action for damages. Recent legislation in a number of common law jurisdictions - New Zealand, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland - now describes the defence of fair comment as "honest opinion". It is not open to us to alter or add to or indeed for that matter reduce the essential elements of this defence, but to describe the defence for what it is would lend greater emphasis to its importance as an essential ingredient of the right to free expression. Fair comment may have come to "decay with … imprecision". 'Honest opinion' better reflects the realities.
    6. This appeal must be allowed.

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