Hewitt & Others v Grunwald & Others
Reference:  EWHC 2959 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 21 Dec 2004
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Allegation of being a 'terrorist organisation' - Internet publication - Justification - Qualified privilege
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Desmond Browne CBE KC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
Justin Rushbrooke KC (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Carter-Ruck for the Claimants; Mishcon de Reya for the Defendants
The Claimants were trustees of the UK-based charity, Interpal. The Defendants were honorary officers of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Claimants sued on a press release published on the Defendants’ website which described Interpal as a ‘terrorist organisation’. They applied to strike out the defences of justification and conventional (ie non-Reynolds) qualified privilege. It was part of their case that the words were only capable of bearing the meaning that the Claimants were directly involved in terrorist activities in that they engaged in terrorist activities or knowingly facilitated such activities. The hearing was adjourned to allow the Defendants to put forward draft amendments to the Defence which (among other things) made it clear that the case of justification alleged not merely knowing, but alternatively reckless, funding of terrorism by Interpal.
Whether the judge should strike out the defences of justification and qualified privilege as being unsustainable in law.
Declining to strike out the defences, that:
(1) the draft Amended Defence was viable as a matter of law (subject to a need for further particularity in a few areas). The concept of ‘terrorist organisation’ was arguably wide enough to embrace those who facilitated or funded acts of terror whether knowingly or recklessly. It would be for the jury to decide whether the press release in fact bore this wider meaning.
(2) As to qualified privilege, it could not be said that the defence was bound to fail simply because the Defendants’ mode of publication – via the Internet – was potentially so wide, particularly as it had not yet been established whether or not the press release had in fact been published to persons outside the scope of the privilege.
The point of legal interest arises out of the ruling on qualified privilege in the context of Internet publication. The Judge suggested that the appropriate test was whether or not the mode of publication selected was ‘reasonable and proportionate having regard to the interest sought to be protected’. As to the facts, the case of justification presently permitted to be advanced is controversial and has potentially far-reaching implications, as the Judge recognised, since it rests in part on the contention that donations made to ‘Zakat committees’ (the usual means by which Islamic charitable donations are administered) in the Occupied Territories are liable to be used to fund terrorism. This is because all such Zakat Committees are alleged to be ‘Hamas entities’ which play a direct role in facilitating terror.