Court of Appeal say libel action by chiropractors has "almost certainly" chilled public debate
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting with the Master of the Rolls and Sedley LJ, today allowed Simon Singh’s appeal against decisions of Eady J last year in the libel claim brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.
In April 2008, the Guardian published in its Comment and Debate section an article by Singh criticising the BCA for website claims that its members could help treat certain childhood disorders. Singh wrote that they made these claims “even though there is not a jot of evidence”, adding that the company “is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments”. The BCA sued Singh but not the Guardian.
Singh relied upon defences of fair comment and justification. In May 2009, Eady J decided the meaning of the words and whether they were comment or fact, sitting as Judge alone at the trial of preliminary issues. He held that the words could not be defended by a comment defence and that Singh had alleged dishonesty on the part of the BCA, which he would have to prove. Singh appealed.
Giving the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Lord Judge said that Eady J had made errors of law and that his findings could not stand. The material words, in particular that there was not a jot of evidence, were expressions of opinion and did not impute dishonesty to the BCA. He observed that: “The opinion may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the Court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth.”
The Court expressed unhappiness about the litigation, observing that it had almost certainly had a chilling effect on a public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic. This, they said, left unresolved the questions raised by Singh, which have a direct resonance for patients.
Singh’s appeal, amongst other recent libel actions involving medicine and science, has given unprecedented momentum to those who campaign for reform of defamation law in this country.
For further details and a copy of the judgment, please see the 5RB case report.