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HIGH COURT OF LAGOS
7TH MAY, 1969
SUIT NO. LD/542/68
Mrs. Ogbemi (with her Tomisin) – for the Plaintiff
Akinrele (with him Adekoya and Kuboye) – for the Defendants
The plaintiff claims from both defendants for libel contained in the “Lagos Week End” of 12th July, 1968 at page 12. The words complained of are:
“Chief Justice tells a teacher `You are a bad woman’.
The plaintiff contended that the words were never spoken of her by the Chief Justice, that they are untrue, that they injured her in her character, credit and reputation and in the way of her profession as a teacher and that they brought her into public scandal, odium and contempt and that she had suffered damage.
The defendants admit that they are the editor and proprietors of the “Lagos Week End”. They however deny that the printing and publication was done falsely or maliciously. They further pleaded that the words complained of were in substance a fair and accurate report of proceedings publicly heard and the report was published contemporaneously with the proceedings. They also pleaded that the words were not libellous of the plain-tiff nor were they understood to impute incompetence in the profession or calling of the plaintiff.
The facts and circumstances giving rise to the printing and publication of the words complained of are very simple in deed. The plaintiff was a Respondent in a matrimonial cause, Suit No. HD/12/68 in which her husband Anthony Omo-Osagie was the Petitioner. The cause was tried by the Chief Justice of Lagos State who on Monday the 8th of July, 1968 gave a written judgment in the Cause. The judgment of the Chief Justice was admitted in evidence as exhibit ‘2’. Reporting the case and the judgment in the issue of the “Lagos Week End” of 12th July, 1968 the paper held out the Chief Justice to have said of the plaintiff: “You are a bad woman”. These words were put in very bold types and in quotation marks. It is manifest on the judgment of the Chief Justice, exhibit ‘2’, that the words were never used by the Chief Justice although he had occasion to make adverse comments on the plaintiff as a witness and a spouse. The learned Chief Justice was of the opinion that the plaintiff was most untruthful and most unsatisfactory as a witness, that she was a woman of no mean temper, that it was difficult to put down in writing a correct description of her demeanour, that he had never met a wife-respondent like the plaintiff in the witness box in the many matrimonial causes he had presided over or conducted as counsel, that she was of a nagging and ill-tempered nature and that this led her to shower abuses as well as acts of violence on the husband-petitioner. What the Chief Justice never said were the words “You are a bad woman” and I will now consider whether these words are defamatory.
It is settled law that where an action for libel is tried by a Judge alone without a jury it is he who has to arrive at a single “right” meaning of the words complained of. (See Slim v. Daily Telegraph Ltd. (1968) 1 A.E.R. p. 506). The Judge therefore has to consider what is the natural and ordinary meaning in which these words would be understood by reasonable men to whom they were published. In determining whether the words are capable of a defamatory meaning the Judge should construe the words according to the fair and natural meaning which would be given them by reasonable per-sons of ordinary intelligence who are neither unusually suspicious nor unusually naive. Looking at the context of the words and the actual words used I have come to the clear view that the words complained of are defamatory I have arrived at this decision by a full consideration of the sense in which the words would reasonably have been understood by an ordinary man. I have given no consideration to the manner in which any of the wit-nesses had received the words. To say of a woman “You are a bad woman” would be received by the reasonable reader in a manner which would lower her in the estimation of such a reader. Reasonable men to which these words were published were bound to understand them in a libellous sense particularly when it is also said in the publication that the woman of whom the words were spoken is a teacher.
Learned counsel for the defence submitted that the words constituted a fair and accurate report of proceedings in which the public was interested. While I accept the submission that a newspaper has a right to publish either verbatim or an abridged and condensed report of what transpired in a court of justice. I think the principle has been well laid that such publication must be done fairly and honourably so as to convey a just impression of what had transpired there. (See Turner v. Sullivan 6 LTR p. 130). I look at the words complained of, the whole report carried by exhibit ‘1’ and also the proceedings exhibit ‘2’ of which it was supposed to be a report. There can be no doubt that the report contained in exhibit ‘2’ is not only grossly inaccurate, it is most unfair and cannot be said to have been done fairly or honourably. It was in the context of the words published in a manner to create sensation. The inaccuracy here is of a rather substantial character and in my view the defences of absolute and qualified privilege are not available to the defendants. In Dauxy v. Star Co. Ltd. 1900 64 New York Supplement p. 283 a report of judicial proceedings stated that counsel said things which were never said by him and it was held that such report was not a fair and accurate report. To my mind it is not a fair and accurate report to attribute words such as “You are a bad woman” to the Judge when he never said these words or even words which were in any way close to these. (See Hayward v. Hayward 1886 34 Ch. D. 198; see also Richards v. Sun Newspapers Ltd. 1931 N.2.L.R. p. 631; and see also Grech v. Oldham Press Ltd. 1958 2 QB p. 275).
I now turn to the issue of damages. This in defamation cases are compensatory, the primary notion being to place the plaintiff in as good a position so far as money can do it, as if the matter complained of had not occurred. (See McCarey v. Associated Newspapers 1965 2 Q.B. 86). The duty of the court here is to do the best it can to ensure that the sum which it awards will fully compensate the plaintiff for the damage caused by the libel with which it is concerned. (See Lewis & Another v. Daily Telegraph Ltd. 1963 2 A.E.R. p. 151 at p. 156). I have taken into consideration the fact that the “Lagos Weekend” circulates in and around Lagos with a moderate circulation out-side Lagos. I also take into consideration the profession and calling of the plaintiff -a teacher. I take into consideration the conduct of the defendants even in court and in their pleadings. They tried to justify the words by con-tending they are in substance a fair and accurate report. I also consider the injured feeling and mental pain suffered by the plaintiff as a result of these words. I am guided in my assessment of damages here by all the circum-stances of the publication and the considerations which I have discussed as to measure of damages. I have come to assess damages in plaintiff’s favour at £400. There will therefore be judgment against both defendants for £400 with costs assessed at £73.1Os.0d.
Judgment for the Plaintiff.