Dealing with Defamation in Civil Law

Concept of defamation

Defamation is making or publishing any dishonest false statement with an intention to harm the reputation of a person or body. Defamation is both a civil wrong and a criminal offence in Indian law.

In civil law, the legal wrong of defamation falls under the Law of Torts. A tort is a civil wrong in which the civil court can impose punishment in the form of damages to the claimant when a suit is filed. The right to enjoyment of good reputation is an indispensable privilege necessary to every person.

Libel and slander are two forms of defamation

In civil law, defamation is of two kinds: libel and slander. Libel is defamation done through a printed or written form. Slander is in spoken form by words, sounds, or gestures. Both libel and slander are means to defamation. Both in libel and in slander, the statement should be communicated to a person other than the person defamed – a third party. The relief available for defamation in civil law is to claim damages.

Defamation of a class is not generally actionable. When the words complained of reflect on a body or class of person such as lawyers, clergymen etc then no particular member of the body can take any action.

Aggrieved person can make a complaint

An aggrieved person can file a complaint on defamation in civil court. A person aggrieved means a person who is injured or one who is adversely affected in a legal sense.

An aggrieved person need not be a person defamed alone. The term has a wider connotation than the person defamed.

Essential ingredients of defamation

The essential ingredients of defamation are:

  1. the words must be defamatory
  2. the words must refer to the aggrieved party
  3. the words must be maliciously made or published

Defamation of a deceased person would amount to the offence of defamation if it would harm if he were alive, and if it hurts his living family and relatives.  Defamation of a company, association or collection of persons is also an offence.

Ironic or alternative comments indicating a particular meaning though not direct will also come under defamation.

General damages & special damages

In civil suit for defamation, the plaintiff can seek general damages for loss of reputation and special damages for specific economic loss if some economic loss caused on account of such defamation.

The person defamed can file a suit against the person for claiming both general damages and special damages for the defamation he suffered. The court will try the suit and if it is convinced that the person enjoys reputation and the imputation lowered his reputation, then the court will allow damages.

Reputation is what a person is thought of by others. It is an element of public opinion in regard to that person. Such reputation refers to the external estimation of him in the eyes of others and not his internal character.

Every person has a right to remain in reputation or high esteem in the opinion of others. A person’s reputation in the eyes of others is his inalienable asset and defamation lowers it. Anyone making any false statement to discredit his reputation is defamation.

Practical examples to clarify what is defamation

Sending defamatory matter to the person by registered post is not defamatory so long as the contents are not revealed to a third person by the maker. But sending the words on a post card is therefore publication.

Advocates as a class are in capable of being defamed when it is not a small determinate class. When somebody speaks against advocates in general, one advocate cannot file a defamation case against the maker of the statement because the general statement does not defame the individual advocate. The defamation should be “concerning any person” whose identity can be established. When a man writes that all lawyers are thieves then no individual lawyer can sue the person for defamation unless there was something to point to that individual.

Accusing a person in front of the public gathering of having illicit relation with a lady is not a mere scurrilous abuse but a punishable crime.

An innuendo showing interferences of two kinds cannot be considered defamatory as it does not defame any particular person. If an innuendo is distinct from its ordinary meaning due to facts known to the recipients then it can be treated as defamatory.

A malignant slander addressed to a single hearer deserves severe punishment than a satire runs into several editions. A person who infuses into the mind of a husband any suspicion of the fidelity of a virtuous wife is a defamer and he deserves tp be proceeded against.

In publishing any work, the compositor or owner of the press does not make or publishes the imputation and therefore the editor responsible for the content alone is not liable for the defamatory statement. But if the editor has no ill will and he publishes anything without knowledge that it was defamatory then on apology he may escape from the civil wrong of defamation. But the Editor of a Television Channel is not responsible for what an anchor says on the spot unless it is shown that there is bad motive on the part of the Editor.

If a person acts on a gossip by another against a person without proper care he cannot escape from the consequence of such defamation. The person saying that he was acting on the information given by another is also no justification unless he shows that he acted with proper care and circumspection with the source.

Describing a woman that she has a paramour wherever she goes is defamatory. Making an allegation that a lady was not a virgin at the time of her marriage is defamatory.

What do not constitute defamation?

Indian Penal Code (IPC) provides ten exceptions which do not constitute defamation and that would be applicable in civil law too. They are as follows:

  1. Making or publishes anything that is true for the public good is not defamation. But it is made for public good is to be proved as a fact by its maker himself.
  2. Making or publishing an opinion about the conduct of a public servant in his public functioning is not defamation.
  3. Expressing an opinion concerning a public issue in good faith is not defamation.
  4. Publishing a true court proceeding is not defamation.
  5. Expressing any opinion of the merit of a decided case or the conduct of the parties or witnesses to the case is not defamation when it is made in good faith.
  6. Expressing any opinion of merits of any performance submitted to the public judgment is not defamation, if it is confined to the performance.
  7. Passing a censure on the conduct of anyone by a lawful authority in regard to his lawful conduct is not defamation.
  8. Accusing anyone in good faith to his authority is not defamation.
  9. Making an imputation in good faith for protecting his or other’s interest in good faith is not defamation.
  10. Conveying a caution in good faith to a person about another person for the good of the former or some other or public good, is not defamation.