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Essentials of defamation in Tort Law

Essentials of defamation in Tort Law
Essentials of defamation in Tort Law


Defamation is an injury to an individual's reputation, akin to interference with property. One's reputation holds significant value and, like property, is susceptible to harm if tarnished without just cause.

Essentials of Defamation

  1. Defamatory Statement: A statement qualifies as defamatory if it tends to lower a person's reputation in the eyes of right-thinking members of society or leads them to shun or avoid the individual. This can manifest through various means such as oral or written communication, printed material, or even conduct.

  2. Reference to the Plaintiff: The defamatory statement must clearly refer to the plaintiff, even if unintentional on the part of the defendant. If a reasonable person could infer that the statement pertains to the plaintiff, the defendant remains liable.

  3. Publication: For defamation to occur, the defamatory matter must be communicated to someone other than the person defamed. Merely dictating a letter or sending it to the plaintiff is considered publication, as defamation affects the perception of others, not just the individual's own opinion of themselves.


Defamatory Statement

The determination of whether a statement is defamatory relies on its potential impact on the plaintiff's reputation in the eyes of the community. Even if the defendant did not intend for the statement to be defamatory, its effect on the plaintiff's reputation is paramount.

Statements causing feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, or disesteem are deemed defamatory, regardless of the defendant's intentions.

In the case of S.N.M. Abdi v. Prafulla Kumar Mohanta, an article alleged misuse of power by a deposed Chief Minister, resulting in defamation and damages awarded to the plaintiff.

Similarly, in D.P. Choudhary v. Manjulata, a false publication regarding a girl's behaviour resulted in ridicule and affected her marriage prospects, leading to liability for defamation.

Publication Requirement

Publication involves making defamatory matter known to someone other than the person defamed. Dictating a letter or sending it to a typist constitutes publication.

Even if a third party wrongfully reads a letter intended for the plaintiff, it constitutes publication. Postcards or telegrams containing defamatory matter inherently lead to publication, as they are likely to be read by others during transmission.


A statement may seem innocuous at first glance but harbour a subtle, secondary meaning that renders it defamatory. This secondary meaning, known as the innuendo, can transform an apparently benign statement into one that damages reputation. Even statements of praise or commendation can carry defamatory undertones depending on the context in which they are made.

Examples of Innuendo

  • A seemingly positive statement like "X is an honest man and he never stole my watch" could be defamatory if listeners interpret it as implying that X is generally dishonest and capable of theft.

  • Similarly, announcing that a lady has given birth to a child becomes defamatory if she is unmarried.

  • Comparing someone to their father may carry a defamatory implication if it suggests negative traits associated with the father, such as being a cheat.

In the case of Capital and Counties Bank v. Henty & Sons, a circular letter issued by Henty & Sons stating they would not accept cheques from Capital and Counties Bank did not constitute libel, as reasonable people would not interpret it as implying the bank's insolvency.

However, in Tolley v. J.S. Fry & Sons Ltd., an advertisement featuring a caricature of Mr. Tolley, a famous amateur golf champion, alongside Fry's chocolate, was deemed defamatory. Despite the advertisement's seemingly harmless intent, the innuendo that Tolley had compromised his reputation for financial gain was supported by the facts and thus constituted defamation.

Intent Not Required

In defamation cases, the intention to defame is not a prerequisite for liability. Even if the person making the statement believed it to be innocent, if the statement is perceived as defamatory by those to whom it is published, defamation occurs. This principle was exemplified in the case of Cassidy v. Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd.

Mr. Cassidy, also known as Mr. Corrigan, was married to a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Cassidy or Mrs. Corrigan. Although they did not live together, Mr. Cassidy occasionally stayed with her. The defendants, Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd., published a photograph of Mr. Corrigan and Miss 'X' with a caption announcing their engagement.

Mrs. Corrigan sued for libel, alleging that the publication implied immoral cohabitation between Mr. Corrigan and Miss 'X', suggesting that Mr. Corrigan was not her lawful husband.

Despite the defendants' claim of innocence, the jury found that the words conveyed a defamatory meaning. The Court of Appeal upheld this decision, affirming that the innuendo was established.

The case demonstrates that the perception of defamation by those to whom the statement is published is sufficient to establish liability, regardless of the defendant's intent.

Even if the defendants were unaware of the facts that made the statement defamatory, they were still held liable for the harm caused.


Defamation of a Class

When allegations are directed towards a group or category of individuals, legal recourse for defamation is complex. Unless a member of the group can establish a direct reference to themselves, suing becomes challenging. For instance, if a statement claims "all lawyers are thieves," no single lawyer can sue unless there's clear indication of personal identification within the statement.

Knupffer v. London Express Newspapers Ltd.

In the case of Knupffer v. London Express Newspapers Ltd., the plaintiff, a member of a large party, sought legal action over a publication concerning the entire group.

Despite some friends perceiving the article as directed at him, the court ruled in favour of the defendant. The reasoning was that the reference encompassed such a vast group, predominantly residing abroad, making personal identification improbable.

Lords Atkin, in the aforementioned case, articulated a significant legal principle. He emphasised that defamatory statements against entities like firms or trustees are actionable only if reasonably understood to apply to each individual member. The difficulty lies in proving inclusion in a defamatory statement targeting a large or unspecified group.

In Dhirendra Nath Sen v. Rajat Kanti Bhadra, the court deliberated on defamation concerning spiritual leaders. It concluded that when a newspaper editorial defames a spiritual head of a community, individual members lack grounds for legal action.

However, if a statement, though general, reasonably implicates a specific individual, legal action may succeed.

In Fanu v. Malcolmson, an article alleging cruelty towards employees in Irish factories was deemed to refer to the plaintiff's Waterford factory. This personal connection led to a successful defamation claim.

Defamation of the Deceased

In legal terms, defaming a deceased individual does not constitute a civil tort. However, under Criminal Law, certain actions may be considered defamatory if they would have harmed the deceased person's reputation had they been alive.

Moreover, if such imputations are intended to cause distress to the deceased's family or close relatives, they may be deemed defamatory under criminal statutes.

While civil law generally does not provide grounds for defamation claims on behalf of the deceased, criminal statutes acknowledge the potential harm caused by defamatory statements directed towards the memory of the deceased.

Central to determining defamation in such cases is the intent behind the statements and their potential impact on the reputation of the deceased individual, as well as the emotional well-being of their surviving family members and close associates.


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