Slander

From the Daily Telegraph yesterday:

a woman who called her in-law a paedophile during a “family feud” was ordered to pay him $30,000 in damages.

Only four people – including the man’s son and daughter – heard the remark, which was made during a child access dispute in July last year.

But District Court Judge Judith Gibson [known at the bar rather originally as “Judge Judy”], who ordered the payout, said: “The making of an allegation of paedophilia, in the context of a dispute of access and custody, is like pouring oil onto a fire.

“It caused the plaintiff a great deal of anxiety and concern. The fact that a serious defamation was published to persons who are close to the plaintiff does not make it any the less hurtful.”

….

Those involved cannot be identified for legal reasons but the woman who made the defamatory remark was the maternal grandmother of the child at the centre of the dispute.

She admitted she was in a “terrible mood” and “just went off my head” before making the allegation about the child’s paternal grandfather.

The court heard that when the man’s daughter answered the door, the grandmother told her: “You know your dad’s a paedophile – a complete stranger came up to me in the street and told me.”

The defence claimed it was just “vulgar abuse” but the man launched defamation proceedings after the grandmother failed to apologise….Judge Gibson awarded $30,000 in compensation due to the very serious nature of the allegation.”

The Telegraph‘s online poll, admittedly unscientific, offered two choices (as best I can recall them): “A family argument should not lead to a large court payout” and “There should be a big payout for making such a disgusting allegation.” The voting was 2:1 in favour of the former.

That vote may be because of the way the story was set up, which was to quote, pretty early in the piece, an expert:

Macquarie University’s law school defamation expert Roy Baker said Australia probably had the most stringent defamation laws of any English-speaking country.

He had not heard of a case like this in 20 years and said most people would be surprised to learn that something said in anger could land them in court.

That is probably a shortened version of what Mr Baker said, because lots of defamatory statements are made in anger. But what I think Baker probably means is “said in anger in a domestic or social context.”

Defamation lawyers tell me that this was a modest verdict. To me, it seems over the top, especially when you realise that costs will be on top of that. Part of the problem (as I see it) is that the one law deals with limited, domestic publications and mass, commercial publication, and that defamation lawyers and judges become accustomed in dealing with the currency which applies to the latter. The whole curial process lends a gravitas to something which almost demands, of itself, that even such a domestic slander be taken very very seriously and a corresponding judgment be awarded.

So next time you are angry, be careful what you say. As Mr Baker was also quoted as saying:

“Watch what you say, only say what you mean and if you say more than you mean, you should immediately correct it and probably apologise.”

And go and talk to your banker.

3 Responses to “Slander”

  1. Caveat rumour « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] with the woman who repeated a rumour that she said “a complete stranger had come up to me in the street and told me,” this […]

  2. k w burns Says:

    the penalty is modest. this brand name for any male you dislike or hate is a replacement for demeaning male with the word ‘poofter’. this word was the worst you could call a male when i was growing up .

    but now paedophile is thrown at any male who is seen with children be they grandfather father or friend.

    children are growing up more and more without male role models because the safest thing for a male to do these days is to have nothing to do with children.

    thanks to all you feminists and independent hyena females.

  3. skepticlawyer » Defamation for dummies Says:

    […] defamation. Marcellous has two great posts on people held liable for defamation in the context of a domestic dispute and another case involving a dispute between two sets of parents which entangled the children as […]

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