The recent case of British Chiropractic Association v Singh, decided by the Court of Appeal, highlights how libel law interacts with scientific debate.   As politicians prepare to reform UK’s archaic libel laws, the Court of Appeal delivered a finding acknowledging that the philosophical freedom to criticise and question is the cornerstone of scientific debate.

Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for writing an article in the Guardian Newspaper which questioned the veracity of claims made for curing various conditions by the BCA.  The BCA contended that the scientist and science writer,  had defamed the organisation for publishing the following comment in the  ‘comment and debate’ section:-

The British CA claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there isn’t a jot of evidence. This  organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments

Singh has waged a long two year campaign, costing him 200,000 pounds  to defend his comments in court before he was vindicated by the  Court of Appeal who ruled in his favour on the 1st April of this year.  On 15 April the British Chiropractic Association filed a Notice of Discontinuance, thus dropping the case against Singh for libel over his criticism of their medical claims.

Singh’s case isn’t the only case involving a scientists or medical practitioner being sued for libel for expressing their concerns or views.  Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a respected cardiologist is currently defending a libel action for expressing his concerns about  research data relating to a new heart device.

The Court of Appeal judgement in BCA v Singh is likely to assist Dr Wilmshurst and other scientists, researchers and scholars to speak out on medical or health issues of public importance.  Although the Court found in favour of Singh, the case highlights the need for a proper public interest defence for scientists and other media publishers against libel claims.

Public debates on matters of medical and science should take place in the public rather than being decided in a courtroom.  There are sound policy reasons for the law not meddling in contentious issues and areas of disagreement within the medical arena.

In the court of appeal ruling handed down on 1 April it was held that Eady J had committed an error or law in deciding that Singh’s remark was a factual assertion rather than the expression of an opinion.  The Court held that the trial judge was wrong in deciding that the onus was on Singh to prove what was in actuality a ‘value-judgement’ under jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

The other question determined by the Court was whether the remarks qualified as fair comment, in their ordinary and natural meaning.  The Court of Appeal held that in deciding this question, it needed to consider the entirety of a claimant’s comment in conformity with jurisprudence.

The issue as to whether there existed any material or evidence to support the claims he advanced, was found by the  Court to be a  matter of opinion rather than fact.   The Court expressed a strong reluctance to compel Singh to prove in court the truth of his assertions.  In doing so, the Court expressed a desire not to allow claimants to censor scientific debate which stifles progress and were more appropriately settled by methods of science rather than litigation.

Freedom of expression is an internationally recognised fundamental human right enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments.  The Human Rights Act (1998) UK also confers upon British citizens free speech rights  contained in Article 10 of the  European Convention on Human Rights.

The significance of free speech rights is compatible with a modern liberal democracy which respects free speech.  Article 10 of the Human Rights
Act also recognises that there are certain rights which justify a restraint on freedom of speech, one of which is the ‘rights and reputations of others’.

The significance of freedom of speech goes far beyond democratic ideals and was recognised as being particularly necessity in the pursuit of knowledge.  Galileo, philosophers and scientists have throughout history faced persecution for stepping outside the established dogma or creed and expressing unorthodox views.

In Galileo’s case he didn’t like the way the stars were behaving and knew that they weren’t an immutable imprint in the sky. The Church had astronomers that knew the truth but if the public questioned this, what else would they start to question?  New ideas can be disruptive and unsettling in a variety of ways in challenging established dogma, forcing us to rethink our place in the Universe.

The victory has been significant in more than one way.  Although the law relating to libel still awaits reform, the case has been responsible for campaigning for libel reform in the UK.

It has resulted in a large scale lobbying of politicians of the major parties to amend the antiquated libel laws that affect the interests of a broad range of people from scientists, human rights advocates, writers, academics, journalists, bloggers and activists.

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