A defamatory statement is a statement calculated to expose a person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to injure him in his trade, business, and profession or to cause him to be shunned or avoided in the society.
A libel is a publication of false and defamatory statement tending to injure the reputation of another person without lawful justification or excuse. The statement must be expressed in some permanent form, e.g. writing, printing, pictures, statue, waxwork effigy, etc.
A slander is a false and defamatory statement by spoken words or gestures tending to injure the reputation of another.
In order to be found an action for libel it must be proved that the statement complained of is (i) false; (ii) in writing; (iii) defamatory; and (iv) published.
The motive of the defendant is not material in determining his liability.
In an action for defamation the plaintiff must show that the defamatory statement refers to him. It is not necessary for this purpose that the plaintiff should have been described by his own name. it is sufficient if he is described by the initial letters of his name, or even by a fictitious name, provided he can satisfy the court that he was the person referred to.
It is immaterial whether the defendant intended the defamatory statement to apply to the plaintiff, or knew of the plaintiff’s existence, if the statement might reasonably be understood by those who knew the plaintiff to refer to him.
Liability for libel does not depend on the intention of the defamer; but on the fact of defamation. It is not necessary that the entire world should understand the libel; it is sufficient if those who know the plaintiff can make out that he is the person meant.
It is not a tort to defame a deceased person but if the statement though referring expressly to the deceased reflects upon the plaintiff and affects his reputation an action will be maintainable.
Where a document containing defamatory statements is published by being read out to a third person, or where the publication of the defamatory statement is to a clerk to whom it is dictated, the communication in either case amounts to slander and not to libel.
The truth of defamatory is a complete defense to an action of libel or slander.
It would make no difference in law that the defendant had made a defamatory statement without any belief in its truth, if it turned out afterwards to be true when made.
If the matter is true the purpose of motive with which it was published is irrelevant.
It is enough if the statement though not perfectly accurate is substantially true, e.g. a statement that the plaintiff was imprisoned for three weeks for travelling in a train without ticket, when in reality he was imprisoned for two weeks.
If there is a gross exaggeration, the plea of justification will fail, e.g. to say that a person has been suspended for extortion three times when he has been suspended only once.
A fair and bona fide comment on a matter of public interest is no libel. Thus, legitimate criticism is no tort. Matters of public interest are not to be understood in a narrow sense. They include matters in which the public is legitimately interested as also matters in which the public is legitimately concerned. The word ‘fair’ embraces the meaning of honest and also of relevancy.
‘Privilege’ means that a person stands in such relation to the facts of the case that he is justified in saying or writing what would be slanderous or libelous in any one else.
Privilege is of two kinds – Absolute and Qualified
A statement is absolutely privileged when no action lies for it even though it is false and defamatory, and made with express malice. On certain occasions the interests of the society require that a man should speak out his mind fully and frankly, without thought or fear of consequences, e.g. in Parliamentary proceedings or in the course of judicial, military, naval or state proceedings. To such occasions, therefore, the law attaches an absolute privilege.
A statement is said to have a qualified privilege when no action lies for it even though it is false and defamatory, unless the plaintiff proves express malice. In certain matters the speaker is protected if there is absence of malice.
Where the defendant sets up the plea that the publication had a qualified privilege, the plaintiff must prove the existence of express malice, which may be inferred either from the excessive language of the defamatory matter itself or from any facts which show that the defendant was actuated by some indirect motive.