The Defences to Defamation – Justification (part 1)

I. Introduction

There are three main defences to defamation including justification, fair comment, and qualified privilege. We would discuss the three defences in two separate articles. The first article would address the legal principles relating to the defence of justification.

II. Defence of Justification

The defence of justification is a complete defence to a defamation claim. The rationale for this can be found in the Singapore Court of Appeal (“CA”) case of Goh Lay Khim and others v Isabel Redrup Agency Pte Ltd and another appeal [2017] 1 SLR 546 where the court stated at [89] that the plaintiff’s reputation has not been lowered beyond its proper level and is just brought down to it.

Firstly, the crux of justification rests in the truth of the defamatory statement, which needs to be proven by the defendant. At [134] of seminal case Review Publishing Co Ltd and another v Lee Hsien Loong and another appeal [2010] 1 SLR 52 (“Review Publishing”), the CA held:

“To succeed in a plea of justification, the defendant need only prove that the substance or gist of the offending words (as opposed to those parts of the offending words which do not add to the sting of the alleged defamation) is true.”

In the same court, the CA held at [135] that the defendant must plead clearly which meaning he seeks to justify. In this case, the defence failed once the judge found that the meaning pleaded by the respondents were not the meaning the appellants sought to justify.

Secondly, the standard of proof remans the balance of proof. Justification is not established by showing “tenuous circumstantial evidence and interferences” as stated by the Singapore High Court (“HC”) in Qingdao Bohai Construction Group Co, Ltd and others v Goh Teck Beng and another [2016] 4 SLR 977 (“Qingdao”) at [169]. Though an accusation of a serious matter will still require cogent evidence to establish as seen also in [169]:

“The more serious the allegation, the less likely it is that the event occurred. Consequently, the stronger the evidence must be before the event’s occurrence can be established on a balance of probabilities.”

Additionally, justification will not succeed if a materially less serious meaning is proved to be true.

This article is prepared with the assistance of our intern, Ms. Tan Wei Lin.

For queries on defamation, you may contact our Head of the Defamation and Reputation Protection Practice, Mr. Wilbur Lim, 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.

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