SUIT FOR DEFAMATION
Author: Shreya Chakraborty, Amity Lawchool, Rajasthan
Defamation is basically the communication of a statement out of which claims arise resulting in a negative image to an individual, business, product, group, etc. Whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said except in the cases defined in the section would defame the person. In India, defamation falls under both civil and criminal liability. Defamation falls under the law of torts, which imposes punishment in the form of damages awarded to the claimant. Defamation is a bailable, non-cognizable and compoundable offence. Thus police cannot be able to start an investigation of defamation without a warrant from a magistrate. The accused also has a right to seek bail. However, it is at the discretion of the aggrieved party whether he wants to frame criminal charges or civil charges for defamation against the accused.
Who can file a Defamation Suit?
A defamation suit can be filed only by the party aggrieved and not by any other person. It was also held in the case of Harish Mendiratta v. Maharaj Singh that an action for defamation was maintainable only by the person who was defamed and not by his friends, relatives and family members.
When a defamatory statement is said to be made against a group or class of persons then it doesn’t consider to be defamation. For instance, publications made against the lawyers, doctors or any other particular class of society then no member of that group can sue unless he proves that the statement refers to him held in the case of Knupffer v. London Express Newspapers Ltd.
The defamation suit is filed by following a particular procedure. The basic steps which have to be followed:
- Hiring and Attorney: The First step towards filing a defamation suit starts with the aggrieved party consulting the attorney. One thing the aggrieved party should keep in mind is that he/she should be as thorough as possible. The aggrieved party should keep all the documents handy which they would have to provide to the attorney to support the case. The attorney should be provided with all the true and relevant facts even which are harmful. All of these are very important because this will enable the attorney to give the best possible advice to the client.
- Filing of Complaint: Post the consultation session with the attorney and after the initial investigation, a complaint has to be filed. Compliant will be filed which is the document initiating the lawsuit. Usually, in the case of India, lawsuits proceed quite slowly which takes up a few months. Simultaneously settlement negotiations can take its course of time.
- Service and Discovery: once a lawsuit is filed, a summons has to be served to the defendants along with enough time to file a reply of the lawsuit and prepare to fight the lawsuit. Once the summons has been served the court issues a scheduling order mentioning all the important deadlines in a case. After this Discovery begins which is basically a formal investigation done by both sides to a case. At this stage, the other party can ask for the documents to supporting the claims made by you. Thus the party should have all the documents handy.
- Depositions: These are basically the interviews conducted under oath where the attorney for the other party interrogates. This is usually the opportunity for the attorneys to build their cases
- Settlement: Once the discovery stage is cleared the settlement negotiations begin. The attorneys try to find a way to settle the case along with getting the best deal for his client. Further to accept the offer or to pursue the trial is at the discretion of the client only.
Essentials of Defamation
- Defamatory Statement: to constitute charges against a person for defamation then the statement made should be defamatory i.e. it should be made with the intention to harm the goodwill of the person. In the case of P. Choudhary v. Manjulata, a statement regarding the desertion of a 17-year-old girl with a boy was published in the local newspapers without verifying the true facts. Such publication affected the girl’s family and raised questions at her character ultimately affecting her marriage prospects. Thus, in this case, the defendants were held liable.
- The statement should refer to the plaintiff: the statement being published or being spoken orally should be directly related to the plaintiff. The burden of proof relies on the plaintiff to prove that the statement made in the public domain is in reference to him only. In the case of Hulton& Co. v. Jones, an article was published in the newspaper about a fictional character. A person with the same name approached the court filing a suit since his relative and friends considered him being referred to in the article. In this case, the defendants were held liable here even though publication was made without the intention of defaming anyone.
- Truth: the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff to proof that the statement is defamatory and if he proves that beyond any doubt then defendant can be held liable for the same but if there is any amount of inaccuracy or the facts are substantially true or there is some minor mistakes made without any intention to harm then the defendant can’t be held liable for defamation. In the case of Alexander v. North Eastern Railway Co. the plaintiff was fined with the amount of 1 pound and 14 days imprisonment while on the other hand railway authorities published the notification in the paper and stated that the plaintiff was awarded imprisonment for three weeks. This was considered as a mistake that was made without the intention to defame the plaintiff rather it was a genuine mistake on the part of the defendants, thus they were not held liable to any compensation or damages to the plaintiff.
- Fair comment: any comments made on the matters which are of public dominion or on the courts, governments then this won’t amount to defamation and this constitutes a clear ground of defense against a statement not being defamatory. But on the other hand, if the comments were made after the conspiracy to cause harm to the plaintiff by which he loses focus on his performance is actionable as held in the case of Gregory v. Duke of Brunswick.
In case of defamation though there is a possibility of civil liability defamation is a serious offence which hampers the reputation and goodwill of the individual in the society and lowers his image and once done can’t be undone. Thus in such situation compensation through money is not enough or can be compared to the damage done to the image of the individual. Therefore an individual should opt for imposing criminal liability against the accused if the statement made cause serious damage to the reputation of the person.
Section 499, Indian Penal Code, 1860.
 2002 Cr. L.J. 2651
 (1994) 1 All E.R. 495
 AIR 1998 Raj. 170
 (1910) A.C. 20
 (1885) 6 B&S 340
 (1843) 6 M.&G. 205