Reference:  UKPC 36;  1 AC 115;  2 All ER 273;  3 WLR 1163;  EMLR 412
Court: Privy Council
Judge: Lords Bingham, Scott, Walker, Baroness Hale, Dame Elias
Date of judgment: 14 Jul 2004
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Absolute privilege - Parliamentary privilege - Whether statement made out of Parliament enjoying absolute or qualified privilege - Whether necessary to plead precise words used - Appeal from New Zealand Court of Appeal
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The Plaintiff, Mr Buchanan, was a senior official of the New Zealand wool board. The Defendant, Mr Jennings, was a member of the New Zealand Parliament. In the course of a parliamentary debate in the House of Representatives on 9 December 1997 the defendant made observations defamatory of the part played by a Wool Board official in procuring Board sponsorship of a rugby tour to the UK. On 15 February 1998 the defendant sought to revive the matter by issuing a press release. When asked in an interview about the matter he said that he did not resile from his claim about the officials’ relationship. Mr Buchanan sued.
(1) Whether a Member of Parliament may be held liable in defamation if the Member makes a defamatory statement in the New Zealand House of Representatives – a statement which is protected by absolute privilege under article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 – and later affirms that statement (without repeating it) on an occasion not protected by privilege.
(2) Whether it was necessary to plead the precise words used.
(1) A statement made in Parliament was absolutely privileged. A statement made outside of Parliament might enjoy qualified privilege but would not enjoy absolute privilege, even if reference was made to the earlier privileged statement.
(2) Where an oral statement is complained of, it is rarely possible in the absence of a recording, transcript or a very careful note for a plaintiff to establish the precise words used by a defendant. But the law does not demand a level of precision which is unattainable in practice. The plaintiff must plead the words complained of, but it is enough if the tribunal of fact is satisfied that those words accurately express the substance of what was said.
The Privy Council unsurprisingly considered that the paramount need to protect freedom of speech in Parliament does not require the extension of absolute privilege to protect statements made outside of the House especially where, as on this occasion, the non-privileged statement was made by Mr Jennings after the absolutely privileged statement. The decision would also appear to relax the requirement in Best v Charter Medical that in a slander claim the words spoken must be pleaded.