Valuable lessons in limiting libel

Roger Pearson reports on a libel case where pre-emptive action helped reduce the damages awarded to a minimum

For the Sikh community, here in the UK and overseas, a recent libel action represents one of the most important pieces of High Court litigation for many years.

However, it is a case of significance not only for the Sikh community but also for litigants in general. It is one which the lawyers involved believe holds important lessons for the legal profession.

The case centred on a leading member of the Sikh community in the UK, Dr Jagjit Singh Chohan. He is now likely to contest the nominal award of one penny made to him at the end of a seven-day hearing, in which a jury unanimously agreed he had been libelled in a book on the history of his people.

Dr Chohan sued Oxford University Press over allegations in the book, 'The History of the Sikhs Volume 2 1839-1988', written by Khushwant Singh, which he claimed portrayed him as being corrupt and violent. It included allegations that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate Mrs Gandhi.

Dr Chohan, who became an 'exile' in the UK 25 years ago, is a leader of the Sikh community in this country and has played a major role in promoting a separate homeland for the Sikhs, to be known as Khalistan. The book's allegations were said to have seriously damaged his credibility among his people.

The trial involved a detailed probe by counsel Jonathan Crystal for Dr Chohan and Tom Shields QC (instructed by Theodore Goddard) for the publishers into the beliefs that are held by followers of the Sikh religion.

The way the finer points of Sikhism were argued – including explaining to the jury why an allegation that Dr Chohan had shaved off his beard was particularly damning to his reputation as a religious leader – was in itself a major triumph of advocacy and complex pre-trial research.

The legal teams involved in the case believe that an important lesson can be gleaned from the final jury award – the effectiveness of pre-trial measures to reduce damages in book libel cases.

They think that swift action to remove the offending copies from bookshelves and an ability to trace the books that had been distributed contributed towards reducing the damages to the 'Pamplin' definition of "almost to vanishing point".

However, Rupert Earle, of Theodore Goddard, is also in no doubt that his client's justification defence played a key role in limiting the jury's award. OUP backed its defence with videotaped tv news evidence showing Dr Chohan commenting on the assassination of Mrs Gandhi.

Earle stresses the impact video evidence can have on juries. At the same time he also praises the advocacy of Tom Shields, in what he said had been "a difficult case".

However, solicitor Anup Choudry, of east London firm Singh & Choudry, who represented Dr Chohan, still believes that the jury was wrong in its award. Even though damage limitation action had been taken to prevent wide circulation of the book he still brands the award as "disgraceful".

Choudry says he cannot see why someone wrongly accused of complicity in a murder plot should receive just a penny in comparison with the recent £750,000 libel award to soccer personality Graeme Souness. He singles out judicial summing up as a major factor in

deciding an award.

He is critical of the judge, Sir Michael Davies, over his summing up. He believes it failed to stress adequately the damage to his client's reputation and consequently played a major part in reducing the damages.

If the appeal against quantum which is now being considered does go ahead it is likely to be based on that summing up, says Choudry.