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Simon Singh Appeal Hearing

One of the most significant trials for free speech and science this year appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Tuesday 23rd February.

Science writer Simon Singh’s libel case v the British Chiropractic Association1 was heard at the Court of Appeal by three of the most senior judges in England and Wales - Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley - on 23 Tuesday February at 10.30 am. Their judgment is expected to make an important contribution to libel law due to the seniority of the panel.

Simon Singh appeal placardsSimon Singh and Robert Dougans at appeal

The Court of Appeal judges will decide the meaning of Singh’s article then rule whether it is fact or comment. This follows a ruling in October 2009, which gave leave to appeal Mr Justice Eady’s judgement in May 2009 that the writing was factual. The hearing is a rare opportunity to clarify the right to ‘fair comment’, one of the few defences available in a libel action.2

Simon Singh said after the appeal said: “First of all, thanks to everyone who came to the Court of Appeal today, and everyone who has been so supportive over the last two years. Without your goodwill, I probably would have caved in a long time ago.

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since t he article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.

 Protestors outside RCJ at Simon's appealSimon outside RCJ

More important than my particular case is the case for libel reform and I know that you share my concern on this matter. My greatest desire is that journalists in future should not have to endure such an arduous and expensive libel process, which has already affected the careers of health journalists such as Ben Goldacre, and which is currently bearing down on the eminent cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst. If Peter loses his case then he will be bankrupted. Please continue to spread the word about libel reform”

Robert Dougans, Bryan Cave LLP, Simon’s solicitor said: “It was encouraging to see three such senior judges taking such an interest in the appeal, and the BCA’s counsel was given a thorough grilling by the court.

What was significant was that the Lord Chief Justice said he was surprised that the BCA had not taken the opportunity offered them back in 2008 to publish their side of the story in the Guardian, rather than insisting Simon apologise and beginning proceedings. He also said it was a waste of both parties’ time and effort. I hope that this is borne in mind by MPs when they grapple with the need for libel reform.”

You can see photos of supporters at the court here

You can read an opinion piece in The Times by Professor Raymond Tallis and by Simon Singh in The Telegraph 

Notes:

  1. Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) because of an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008 on the lack of evidence for the claims some chiropractors make on treating certain childhood conditions including colic and asthma with chiropractic. The BCA did not take up the offered right to reply but sued Singh personally. His case, and a number of other high profile cases of medics and scientists being sued for libel for criticising medical claims including Dr Ben Goldacre and Dr Peter Wilmshurst, prompted the launch of the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign in June 2009. In December 2009 the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign joined up with Index on Censorship, the free speech charity, and English PEN, the writers’ organisation, to form the Libel Reform Coalition. Together they launched the petition for reform of the libel laws to include a public interest defence for writers writing on important subjects which now has over 55,000 signatures at http://www.libelreform.org
  2. Defences available in a libel action are:
    1. Fair Comment - this defence requires that the defendant shows their writing was comment and not fact and is on a matter of public interest.
    2. Justification - you can defend a libel claim by showing that your writing is factually true. The words are assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the defendant to show that they are true.
    3. Privilege - there are some circumstances where people are absolutely protected from libel action e.g. MPs speaking in Parliament and some occasions where writing qualifies for privilege because of the duty of the person making the statement e.g. in employment references or when reporting a crime.