Sharma v Singh & Associated Newspapers Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 2988 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 17 Dec 2007
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Defences - Justification - Lucas-Box meaning - Legitimate scope of plea of justification to a level 1 meaning - Repetition rule
Harassment - Whether conduct constituted harassment - Protection from Harassment Act 1997
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Instructing Solicitors: Stewart-Moore for C; Taylor Wessing for the Ds
C, Air India’s Regional Director for the UK and Europe, brought a libel claim over an article alleging that he had been dismissed for sexually harassing four female workers and that he was currently under investigation by Heathrow police.
The Ds pleaded justification, and applied to amend their defence to rely on an internal Air India report. C made a cross-application to strike out some of the Ds’ Lucas-Box meanings and the particulars relating to two of the female workers which, C contended, did not disclose a valid case of sexual harassment.
(1) Whether the article was capable of bearing the Ds’ meaning that C had made unwelcome sexual advances which were not actionable under the Protection from Harassment Act;
(2) Whether particulars relating to two of the female workers amounted to particulars of sexual harassment;
(3) Whether it was legitimate to seek to justify the fact of inquiries by Air India and the police at the same time as seeking to prove C guilty of harassment;
(4) Whether the Ds’ reliance on an Air India internal report on C breached the repetition rule.
(1) The article was capable of bearing the Ds’ meaning relating to conduct not actionable as harassment.
(2) Accordingly the Ds did not have to plead particulars which disclosed a criminal offence or civil tort under the Act, which did not in any event define harassment.
(3) Since D was seeking to prove that C was guilty of sexual harassment, it was not legitimate for D to seek in parallel to prove that C had been investigated by Air India and by the police, or to prove the response of the investigators to the allegations of harassment – such matters were irrelevant.
(4) The proposed pleading on the internal report breached the repetition rule, and there was no reasonable basis for drawing an inference that C had hampered the progress of an Air India investigation into his conduct.
There is a remarkable absence of recent authority on the application of the repetition rule where a level 1 meaning is sought to be justified. The decision affirms that the repetition rule applies with no less vigour to level 1 pleas of justification than to level 2 pleas (reasonable grounds to suspect). The decision is also notable for doubting the opinion expressed in Gatley that for conduct to qualify as harassment under the Act it must produce more than worry, trouble, discomfort or unease in the victim.