Aaron and Others v Cheong Yip Seng and Others

CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Judgment Date27 February 1996
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 63 of 1995
Date27 February 1996
Aaron Anne Joseph and others
Cheong Yip Seng and others

[1996] SGCA 78

M Karthigesu JA


L P Thean JA


Chao Hick Tin J

Civil Appeal No 63 of 1995

Court of Appeal

Evidence–Admissibility of evidence–Facts in issue–Whether evidence of child abuse relevant in view of pleadings–Whether evidence relevant to issues of credibility and the award of damages–Effect of wrongful admission of evidence–Tort–Defamation–Fair comment–Whether subject matter of public interest–Whether defence of fair comment made out–Tort–Defamation–Justification–Whether facts justifying imputations contained in libel–Whether substance or gist of libel being proved–Whether defence of justification made out–Tort–Defamation–Qualified privilege–Press publication–Whether publisher having legal, social or moral duty to communicate information to general public–Whether information of general interest to public or only a section of the public–Whether defence of qualified privilege made out–Tort–Defamation–Publication–Natural and ordinary meaning of words–Whether words defamatory–Alternative claim based on innuendo–Whether inference could be drawn from juxtaposition with other articles

The appellants and their children lived communally with some other families in two adjoining houses as part of a community known as the House of Israel. The appellants brought a libel action against the respondents based on a report published inThe Straits Times (“the report”). The report occupied about three-quarters of a page of the newspaper and consisted of three separate articles. The first two articles highlighted the nature, structure and religious practices of the appellants and the House of Israel. A third article (“the third article”) contained various statements made by one Van Leen, about the potential dangers of belonging to a sect with a leader who controlled the members. These articles were published as a result of the third appellant's wife being convicted and sentenced for the abuse of her children and niece. The appellants argued that parts of the first two articles bore natural and ordinary meanings that were defamatory. In respect of the third article, the appellants also alleged defamation based on natural and ordinary meaning with an alternative claim based on innuendo. The trial judge considered all the evidence and concluded that the House of Israel was a sect; and rejected the appellants' claim, finding that the respondents had made out the defence of justification. In the alternative, she found that they had succeeded on the plea of qualified privilege. The appellants appealed, on the grounds that: (a) the admission of the evidence of child abuse was erroneous as such evidence was irrelevant, inadmissible and highly prejudicial to the appellants; (b) the defence of justification was not made out; (c) the claim based on innuendo was wrongly dismissed by the trial judge; and (d) the respondents could not, under the circumstances, avail themselves of the defence of qualified privilege.

Held, dismissing the appeal:

(1) In considering the natural and ordinary meaning of the words, the proper approach was to consider what meaning the words would convey to an ordinary reasonable person who was neither unduly naïve nor suspicious, using his general knowledge and common sense. Such a meaning was not confined to the literal or strict meaning of the words but included any inferences which could reasonably be drawn by such a person: at [41].

(2) The Court of Appeal did not accept entirely the natural and ordinary meanings of the first two articles as ascribed by the appellants. It did not think that the ordinary reader would conclude that the appellants were members of a cult, that they were guilty of criminal offences and that hurt to the children were due to the influence of the appellants. The main article made it clear that the complaints to the police and Ministry of Home Affairs did not lead to any charges being brought. There was no suggestion that anyone other than Sarah was involved in child abuse: at [43].

(2) The third article could not be read in isolation. It had to be read objectively in the context in which it was set out; the whole of the publication had to be considered. The juxtaposition of the third article with the first two articles and the photographs within the report was crucial. An ordinary reader, having read the first and second articles and having seen the photographs would have, on reading the third article, come irresistibly to the conclusion that the third article also referred to the appellants and in particular to the first appellant as the leader of the sect: at [49].

(3) The imputations found by the court in the natural and ordinary meanings of the offending words in the report tended to bring the appellants into public odium and contempt and lower them in the estimation of right-thinking members of the society. The words complained of in the report were defamatory of the appellants: at [51].

(4) The evidence of child abuse could not be said to be relevant to the plea of justification or the other defences and ought not to have been admitted. It was also not made relevant by the appellants' pleadings. In respect of the relevance of such evidence to the issue of credibility of witnesses, only cross-examination of the appellants should have been allowed and no evidence should have been adduced to contradict or disprove the claims made by the appellants. In relation to character, for the purpose of the award of damages, particular acts of misconduct tending to show one's character and disposition were not admissible. The trial judge erred in admitting the evidence of child abuse adduced from the respondents' witnesses. However, even if the evidence of child abuse was not taken into account, there were sufficient grounds to justify the learned judge's decision not to accept the evidence of the appellants. The wrongful admission of evidence was not such as to justify a reversal of the trial judge's decision: at [59], [60], [65] and [66].

(5) Where a defendant in a defamation action pleaded justification, he had to do so in such a way as to inform the plaintiff and the court precisely what meaning or meanings he sought to justify. The facts which the respondents had proved justified the imputations contained in the libel. The defence of justification succeeded in respect of the first and second articles. Although parts of the third article were not pleaded and justified by the respondents, the substance or gist of the libel contained in that article had been proved. The defence of justification was also made out in respect of the third article: at [68], [71] and [73].

(6) The third article contained substantially expressions of opinion and were therefore comments. The matter in the present case concerning a religious sect was of legitimate public interest. On the facts which the respondents had proved, an honest and fair-minded person could honestly express the comments that were made in the third article. The defence of fair comment succeeded in relation to the third article: at [74], [76] and [79].

(7) Privilege for publication in the press of information of general public interest was limited to cases where the publisher had a legal, social or moral duty to communicate. There was no general “media privilege at common law”. The relevant factors were by whom and to whom, when, why and in what circumstances the publication was made, and whether these things established a relation between the parties which gave rise to a social or moral duty. This might entail consideration of questions of public policy. The respondents only showed that the publication of the information was in the interest of a section of the public, namely, members of the Christian community. Such sectional interest did not give rise to a moral or social duty to publish the report. The respondents did not succeed on the defence of qualified privilege: at [81], [87] and [88].

Adam v Ward [1917] AC 309 (refd)

Allbutt v The General Council of Medical Education and Registration (1889) 23 QBD 400 (refd)

Blackshaw v Lord [1984] QB 1 (refd)

Chapman v Lord Ellesmere [1932] 2 KB 431 (refd)

Globe and Mail Ltd, The v Boland (1960) 22 DLR (2d) 277 (refd)

Hobbs v Tinling (C T) and Company, Limited [1929] 2 KB 1 (folld)

Jones v Skelton [1963] 1 WLR 1362; [1963] 3 All ER 952 (folld)

Kelly v Tinling (1865) LR 1 QB 699 (folld)

Lee Kuan Yew v Davies Derek Gwyn [1989] 2 SLR (R) 544; [1989] SLR 1063 (folld)

London Artists Ltd v Littler [1968] 1 WLR 607, QB (refd)

London Artists Ltd v Littler [1969] 2 QB 375, CA (refd)

Lucas-Box v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1986] 1 WLR 147 (refd)

Morrell v International Thomson Publishing Ltd [1989] 3 All ER 733 (refd)

Prager v Times Newspapers Ltd [1988] 1 WLR 77 (refd)

Rubber Improvement Ltd v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1964] AC 234 (folld)

Scott v Sampson (1882) 8 QBD 491 (folld)

Silkin v Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd [1958] 1 WLR 743 (refd)

Sim v Stretch (1936) 52 TLR 669 (refd)

Slim v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1968] 2 QB 157 (folld)

Viscount De L'Isle v Times Newspaper Ltd [1988] 1 WLR 49 (refd)

Yorkshire Provident Life Assurance Company v Gilbert & Rivington [1895] 2 QB 148 (refd)

Children and Young Persons Act (Cap 38, 1994 Rev Ed)

Evidence Act (Cap 97,1985 Rev Ed)ss 5, 148,155

Rules of the Supreme Court (Cap 322, R5, 1990 Ed)O 73r 3, O 59r 19 (2)

Charles Anthony St John Gray QC, R Palakrishnan, Malathi Das and Dominic Nagulendran (Palakrishnan & Pnrs) for the appellants

Tan Chee Meng, Doris Chia and Michael Palmer (Harry Elias & Pnrs) for the respondents.

Judgment reserved.

L P Thean JA

(delivering the judgment of the court):

1 This is an appeal against the decision of Lai Siu Chiu J dismissing the appellants' libel action against the respondents based on a report published in The Straits Times on 9 March 1989 (“the...

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