Full case report

Worme & Another v Commissioner of Police of Grenada

Reference [2004] UKPC 8; [2004] 2 AC 430; [2004] 2 WLR 1044; [2004] EMLR 173
Court Privy Council

Judge Lords Bingham, Browne-Wilkinson, Slynn, Rodger & Walker and Sir Andrew Legatt

Date of Judgment 29 Jan 2004


Summary

Human Rights – Criminal Libel – Public Figures – Public Interest – Freedom of Expression – Reputation – Intentional Libel – Defences – Qualified Privilege – ss.252, 253, 257 and 258 Criminal Code of Granada – s.10 Constitution of Granada


Facts

The Appellants were the editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper in Granada which published an open letter accusing the Prime Minister of Grenada of winning the election by illegally bribing voters. Criminal libel proceedings were brought against the Appellants under the Criminal Code. The Appellants argued that the provisions of the Code were inconsistent with their right to freedom of expression under s.10 of the Constitution.


Issue

Whether the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution protected a freedom to publish material discussing political matters, concerning the conduct of public figures in relation to elections and in relation to the suitability of persons for office; if so, whether the guaranteed freedom of expression was violated by the offence of intentional libel as defined by the Code; and whether the guaranteed freedom of expression was violated by the prosecution of the Appellants when the subject of the alleged libels concerned the reputation of an individual and did not concern any public interest.


Held

The offence of intentional libel was reasonably required to protect people’s reputations and did not violate the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Constitution: “The protection of good reputation is conducive to the public good. It is also in the public interest that the reputation of public figures should not be debased falsely… [T]he objective of an offence that catches those who attack a person’s reputation by accusing him, falsely, of crime or misconduct in public office is sufficiently important to justify limiting the right to freedom of expression… Of course, the tort of libel provides a civil remedy for damages against those who make such attacks, but this no more shows that a crime of intentional libel is unnecessary than the existence of the tort of conversion shows that a crime of theft is unnecessary. Similarly, the fact that the law of criminal libel has not been invoked in recent years does not show that it is not needed.” per Lord Rodgers


Comment

Criminal libel proceedings are very rare in the UK, and the “necessity” for criminal sanctions in the area of defamation had been thought dubious. This decision from the Privy Council, although premised on the particular context of Grenada, has a much broader impact. Lord Rodger’s comparison between the law of libel and the law of theft/conversion is not wholly convincing; nor is the discussion of the “necessity” for retaining criminal libel. Their Lordships did, however, accept that a defendant charged with criminal libel could run a Reynolds defence.


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Instructing Solicitors

Simons Muirhead & Burton for the Appellant. Charles Russell for the Respondent.