Defamation

A former professional cricketer was entitled to aggravated damages following unsubstantiated match-fixing allegations made on Twitter where a defendant had maintained a plea of justification.
Judgment for claimant

New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns claimed defamation following the publication of words about him by the defendant, former Indian Premier League chairman Lalit Modi, on the social networking site Twitter.

Cairns is a former test cricket captain who had been hired to captain and coach a team in the Indian Cricket League. Modi was vice-president of the Board of Cricketing Control for India. He published on his official personal page on Twitter that Cairns had been removed from the Indian Premier League auction list by the governing council due to his past record in match-fixing.

The allegations were also published on the website of an online cricket magazine following comments made on it by Modi repeating the allegations. The court had to decide whether Cairns was a match-fixer, or whether at the material time there were strong grounds for suspicion that he was a match-fixer. Modi pleaded justification. Judgment for claimant

Modi had singularly failed to provide any reliable evidence that Cairns had been involved in match-fixing or spot-fixing, or even that there had been strong grounds for suspicion that he was. Each of the individuals who had given evidence to that effect were not to be believed. Modi had also relied on hearsay evidence which was inconsistent and unreliable. Even if the court had applied a simple balance of probabilities test, the plea of justification would have failed in both respects.Cairns was entitled to compensatory damages.

It was obvious that an allegation that a professional cricketer was a match fixer went to the core of the attributes of his personality and, if true, entirely destroyed his reputation for integrity.

The allegation had not been as serious as terrorism or sexual offences, for example, but it was otherwise as serious an allegation as anyone could make against a professional sportsman.

The parties agreed that the original tweet was received by about 65 followers and that the second publication on the magazine’s website was only there for a few hours, which the court estimated had been read by about 1,000 people.

Although publication was limited, that did not mean damages should be reduced to a trivial amount. The damages were to be assessed on the basis that Cairns was a professional cricketer of good character and reputation.

The starting point for damages was £75,000.

The sustained and aggressive assertion of the plea of justification at the trial increased the damages recoverable by a factor of about 20 per cent. After taking account of
the aggravation, the appropriate award was £90,000.

Commentary
Emily MacManus

News that a single tweet can cost you £90,000 and more than £1m in costs will not be taken well by the Twitterati.

Mr Justice Bean confirmed that you cannot separate your personal and professional views for the purposes of a libel claim, even where such views are published on an informal forum, and particularly where your professional view is likely to be considered authoritative.

The case shows that the defence of justification must be treated with caution. In the judgment, Modi’s defence was roundly criticised and Cairn’s damages were increased by 20 per cent.

Bean J did not consider Modi’s statements to the effect that “if he sues us, we’ll prove his guilt”, later tweets in which he referred to the case saying “match-fixing must be stopped”, or allegations of ’libel tourism’ that were found to be “misguided”, to be aggravating factors.

It was found, however, that the way the defence had been run was enough on its own to attribute a 20 per cent increase on damages.

Closing submissions were taken as an example: the words “liar”, “lie” and “lies” were used 24 times and the claimant’s alleged conduct was referred to as “blackmail” of “children in an orphan’s home”.

Emily MacManus, solicitor, Mishcon de Reya

For the claimant

Andrew Caldecott QC, One Brick Court

Ian Helme, One Brick Court

Rhory Robertson, partner, Collyer Bristow

For the defendant

Ron Thwaites QC, Ely Place

Lawrence Abramson, partner, Fladgate