Suresh Deman v (1) Associated Newspapers Ltd (2) Baroness Flather [2016] EWHC 2819 (QB)

In November 2015, Suresh Deman (the “Claimant”), who was a litigant in person, issued a claim against Associated Newspapers and Baroness Flather (the “First and Second Defendant”) for defamation in respect of an article that the Second Defendant had written back in November 2011 which contained references to him (the “Article”). It was originally published in the Daily Mail and on the Mail Online website, however the claim was limited to the Article’s publication on the website only.

Background 

The Article, entitled ‘Grasping peers, and why it’s so wrong to play the race card’, contained a relatively detailed discussion by the Second Defendant on the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the implications of vexatious and/or repeated claims of racial discrimination. The Article named the Claimant twice as follows:

In 2007, London’s High Court threw out a claim from serial race claimant Suresh Deman, a finance lecturer whom the judge declared to be ‘obsessed’ with being racially discriminated against. Mr Deman took 40 cases to employment tribunals, winning more than £194,500 and costing the taxpayer more than £1 million in legal bills.

While the Article was wrong in respect of the date of the Claimant’s previous case (he in fact brought the action in September 2006) and that the claim had been heard in the Employment Appeals Tribunal (not in the High Court as written in the Article), the Second Defendant was referring to a judgment in a separate matter (the “First Claim”), in which the judge held that it was the Claimant’s habit to “assert racial discrimination as a response to any decision or action adverse to him” and that the Claimant had an “obsession that he is a victim of racial discrimination which exists without reference to the evidence in any particular case”. It was decided that the Claimant “habitually and persistently instituted vexatious proceedings”. As the Claimant had not successfully appealed the First Claim, this judgment is still considered to be good law.

The claim against the First and Second Defendant (the “Second Claim”)

The Claimant pleaded that the statement that he was “obsessed with being racially discriminated against” was defamatory. In his Particulars of Claim, a legal document which sets out the full background to and facts of a claimant’s dispute, the Claimant particularised that the Article, amongst other things, suggested him to be guilty of fraud or falsely claiming expenses (as the Second Defendant had written about in respect of MPs), that he was perceived to be “half man and half reptile” and that he was a “totally irrational and deranged person”.

In response to these allegations, the First and Second Defendant issued an application to strike out the Claimant’s claim and for summary judgment (contained within Civil Procedure Rules 3.4 and 24(2) respectively).

The judgment

Sir David Eady dealt with five key issues in his judgment on the Second Claim, namely:

  1. Limitation;
  2. The absence of “serious harm” and/or abuse of process;
  3. The earlier action against the First Defendant;
  4. A collateral attack on the EAT proceedings; and
  5. Qualified privilege and advice.

Limitation

The Defamation Act 2013 (the “Act”) came into effect at midnight on 31 December 2013 and was therefore applicable to the Second Claim. There is a time limit of 12 months for claimants to bring an action in defamation and under section 8 of the Act (the “single publication rule”, a mechanism which prevents authors of online publications being open-endedly liable) the period in which the Claimant should have brought his action expired on 31 December 2014. Evidence by the Defendants showed that since someone had accessed (and thus “published”) the Article on 1 January 2014, the single publication rule was triggered and, in effect, the limitation clock started ticking from this date.

The Claimant did not issue his claim until 20 November 2015, just under 11 months after the limitation period expired. The Claimant therefore needed permission of the court to bring the defamation action outside of the prescribed time limit.

Sir Eady was presented with no satisfactory evidence by the Claimant to explain why he had delayed bringing the Second Claim other than the fact that he had not discovered the existence of the Article until mid-September 2015. There was nothing within this argument that was exceptional enough to justify granting permission to bring proceedings out of time.

On the other hand, Sir Eady said that there would be a very clear detriment to the First and Second Defendant, even as far as to impact on their rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, should they have had to defend a “very stale case”.

Given that the purpose of a defamation claim is the “speedy restoration of reputation following serious harm”, Sir Eady was not prepared to grant the Claimant permission.

Absence of “serious harm” and/or abuse of process

Section 1 of the Act introduced a test of serious harm in defamation claim. Sir Eady found it hard to find any serious harm to the Claimant’s reputation, particularly in light of the comments made above in the First Claim that the Claimant habitually and persistently instituted vexatious proceedings. He could find no reason to allow the Claimant to proceed with the Second Claim.

Earlier action against Associated Newspapers Ltd

In its submissions, the First Defendant drew the court’s attention to an almost-identical claim that the Claimant had initiated in response to an article written by the First Defendant in November 2007 entitled ‘Race-claims lecturer beats legal ban to carry on suing’. At the time, the Claimant, having received a strike-out application from the First Defendant, wrote to the other party stating his intention to discontinue on the basis that he would not have to pay the First Defendant’s costs. This was agreed between the parties.

In the Second Claim, therefore, the First Defendant said that either it would be manifestly unfair on it to re-litigate or that it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. Sir Eady was not persuaded on this point but noted that this was not the only argument available to the First and Second Defendant to strike out the Claimant’s claim.

A collateral attack on the EAT proceedings

Despite not being persuaded on the earlier action point, Sir Eady did find that, upon the First Defendant’s submissions that the Claimant’s points were “reheated versions of the same arguments (…) considered and rejected before the EAT”, the Second Claim amounted to a collateral attack on the decision in the First Claim and would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. Furthermore, he would not allow the Claimant the chance to discredit or criticise the integrity, character and reasoning of the judge in the First Claim.

Qualified privilege and malice

There is a defence under Part 1, Schedule 1of the Defamation Act 1996 that a “fair and accurate report of proceedings in public before a court” is determined as a statement having qualified privilege without explanation or contradiction (paragraph 2). Accordingly, there was a defence open to the First and Second Defendant that the alleged defamatory words contained within the Article consisted primarily of a report on judicial proceedings, and that such report was fair and accurate. Although there were errors contained within the report (addressed above), Sir Eady found these to be “sloppy but peripheral”.

Accordingly, the applications of the First and Second Defendant were granted and the Claimant’s claim was struck out.

The courts are still finding their way through the potential various elements to defamation claims since the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013, and in particular the section 1 requirement for serious harm to the claimant’s reputation. While Sir Eady’s judgment is unique to the specific and unusual facts mentioned above, this case is also a useful reminder to defamation practitioners of another important change introduced by the Defamation Act 2013, the “single publication rule”, which has the potential to adjust the limitation period for defamation claims.