Law of Defamation: Admission of Liability

One pertinent issue in defamation suits is whether a letter of apology or public statement could be deemed to be an admission of liability.

At [36] of Shunmugam Jayakumar v Joshua Jeyaretnam Benjamin [1996] 2 SLR(R) 658 (“Jayakumar”), the Singapore High Court cited with approval Lord Morris’ judgment: -

“… “It is well settled”, said Lord Morris in Gordon Berkeley Jones v Clement John Skelton [1963] 1 WLR 1362 at 1376, “that the question whether words which are complained of are capable of conveying a defamatory meaning is a question of law and is therefore one calling for decision by the court…” [emphasis ours]

An admission must be “an admission of facts” and not an admission of the law or legal liability. Based on the admission of facts, the Court would then decide whether a defendant is guilty under the law.

In this regard, the requirements for an unequivocal admission is also set outin Mycitydeal Ltd (trading as Groupon UK) and ors v Villas International Property Ltd and ors [2014] 4 SLR 1077 where it was held at [65] that for there to be an unequivocal admission, there must be a “clear admission of facts”.

It must be the case that an innocent party cannot be imposed with legal liability when it had denied factual liability.

The English Court of Appeal in Coote v Ford [1899] 2 Ch. 93 was asked to address a similar issue. When faced with the question of whether there is an admission of liability when a defendant, with a defence denying liability, pays money into court, the Court, having examined the rules involved, held: -

“… Does that mean that the plaintiff can, by taking the money out of court, treat a denial of liability as an admission of the liability? Can he force the defendant to admit that which he has strenuously denied? That appears to me to be nonsense…” [emphasis ours]

Although the above case deals specifically with the English Rules of the Supreme Court 1883, the underlying principle is trite and still holds true.

The Singapore High Court in Bogart Malls Pte Ltd v Enets Pte Ltd and another suit [2014] SGHCR 7 also endorsed the high threshold required for an admission of liability. The Court agreed at [37] that for there to be an admission of liability, “the admission must be a clear admission of all, and not simply evidence of some, of the facts upon which the plaintiff would have to rely to establish his cause of action”. In that case, the Court found that there was no admission of liability as there was no admission to all the facts.

In totality, the Court has to scrutinise if there was a clear admission of all the facts which a claimant had to rely on to establish its cause of action. It is not a straightforward endeavour.

For queries on defamation, you may contact our Head of the Defamation and Reputation Protection Practice at wilbur.lim@wmhlaw.com.sg or 6514 6351.

Disclaimer: The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

Filed under: Defamation
Wilbur Lim

Wilbur Lim

Wilbur’s wide practice includes commercial and construction litigation and arbitration. He also handles a range of criminal and matrimonial matters. Wilbur's clients consist of individuals and large corporations, including foreign listed company with annual turnover of approximately USD$1 billion.

Read More Articles or View Profile