British Chiropractic Association v Singh (2011)

English Tort Law

Chiropractic Association v Singh
‘Leaning Right’ by Steve Mills

Damages for libel and the freedom of expression, rely upon distinct terms of meaning for their preservation or application. And so on this occasion, the subjective opinion of an industry insider becomes the target of a writ that while not uncommon, does little to protect the reputation of those evaluated.

Whilst writing a tabloid article, the appellant doctor wrote of the respondents:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence.”

In retaliation, the respondents issued a writ for defamation on grounds that when publishing the article, the appellant had implied on the basis of fact, that the respondents lacked any credible evidence with which to support its claims. During the trial, the judge elected to apply a ‘fact’ based test, as opposed to one of subjective opinion, whereupon the jury found against the appellant and damages were set, along with injunctive remedy.

During the appeal, the Court reexamined the actions of the judge when choosing to adopt a factual premise upon which to rest the defence, while exploring the meaning of art.10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of expression), with particular reference to De Haes and Gijsels v Belgium, in which the Court found that a journalist accused of libellous commentary was ultimately found to have merely expressed a ‘value judgment’ based upon collective facts relating to the field under discussion.

Here, the appellant had recently co-authored a book with an established authority on the history of chiropractic medicine, who had found through direct application of the methods common to chiropractic, that despite seventy experimental trials, there was no evidence to support the claims forwarded by the respondents, hence the commentary made within the article.

With these ‘facts’ in hand, the Court held that while honest in his intentions, the trial judge had erred in treating subjective opinion and reasoned commentary as statements of fact, and that by doing so had in essence contravened the rights contained under art.10, and reinforced the notion that challenges of those in authority were subject to punishment or forfeiture.

It was for this reason that the Court reversed the previous decision, while citing the words of Judge Easterbrook in Underwager v Salter, who had clarified how:

“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation . . . more papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of images – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”

While reminding the Court that language should not be used to distort, dilute or obscure the purpose of clarity when establishing liability for defamation or libel.

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998

Insight | February 2017

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998
Image: ‘Against Forgetting’ by Marcia Bushnell

The Human Rights Act was brought into being as a consequence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was first formulated by the Council of Europe in 1950.

Founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as used by the United Nations), ten countries first rallied for its formation, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The Convention took effect in September 1953, with the primary directive of protecting specific fundamental rights among Member States of the Council of Europe, while the core values of the UK constitution enjoyed presumptions of liberty, representative government and the rule of law.

Before the ECHR became intrinsic to domestic law, Ministers often found themselves abusing discretionary powers, which amounted to a constitution largely beyond reproach, relying instead upon collective political norms for enforcement. This protracted period of neglect gave rise to an increase in administrative jurisdiction, and during the 1980s the courts began to adopt a more concrete conception of the rule of law, preferring instead to propagate such values as ‘freedom of expression’ ‘equality’ and ‘freedom from destitution’. However, presumptions followed that common law infringement upon these values would deem statute intervention unlawful, and it soon became conventional thinking; particularly in the well known R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Brind, where the domestic courts held that as the ECHR was not part of English law, the government was able to restrict media coverage of Irish extremist groups, despite clear encroachment upon the right to freedom of expression, and a sadly failed appeal by the journalists fiercely defending that right.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the British constitution accepted that using convention as a means of entrusting civil liberties could no longer be tolerated, and so on 9 November 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted by Royal assent. From 2 October 2000 onward, all rights and freedoms previously safeguard by the ECHR were now directly enforceable though UK common law, and the sovereignty of Parliament was agreed.

This upheaval in institutional law was particularly significant, in that for the first time English judicial authority was awarded greater scope for case interpretation, where historically such matters were determined through ministerial debate. This was however, a change that was not without its detractors, nor ignorant of an entrenched inclination to overlook common law in lieu of political fervour.