The Supreme Court of Canada recently released two decisions which will have a major impact on defamation cases.
In Quan v. Cusson (Nov. 9, 2006)(32420) Dec. 22, 09 C was an Ontario police constable who, shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 and without permission from his employer, traveled to New York City to assist with the search and rescue effort at Ground Zero. A newspaper published articles alleging that C had misrepresented himself to the authorities in New York and possibly interfered with the rescue operation. C brought a libel action against the newspaper and the reporters.
In Grant v. Torstar Corp. (Nov. 28, 2008)(32932) Dec. 22, 09 G and his company brought a libel action against a newspaper and reporter after an article was published concerning a proposed private golf course development on G’s lakefront estate. The story aired the views of local residents who were critical of the development’s environmental impact and suspicious that G was exercising political influence behind the scenes to secure government approval for the new golf course. The article quoted a neighbour who said that “everyone thinks it’s a done deal” because of G’s influence. The reporter, an experienced journalist, attempted to verify the allegations in the article, including asking G for comment, which G chose not to provide
In both cases the SCC decided that there is a "responsible journalism" defence in Ontario, including for bloggers, and ordered that there be a new trial.
The "responsible journalism" defence has been adopted by the English courts and gives greater scope to freedom of expression. The defence allows publishers to escape liability if they can establish that they acted responsibly in attempting to verify information on a matter of public interest. The SCC found that this defence represents a reasonable and proportionate response to the need to protect reputation while sustaining the public exchange of information.
This change to the law creates a new defence and leaves the traditional defence of qualified privilege intact. To be protected by the defence of responsible communication the publication must be on a matter of public interest and the defendant must show that publication was responsible, in that he or she was diligent in trying to verify the allegation(s), having regard to all the relevant circumstances.
Where the defence is raised the trial judge first decides whether the publication is on a matter of public interest and if so, the jury then decides whether the standard of responsibility has been met.
In determining whether a publication is on a matter of public interest, the judge must consider the subject matter of the publication as a whole. To be of public interest, the subject matter must be shown to be one inviting public attention, or about which the public, or a segment of the public, has some substantial concern because it affects the welfare of citizens, or one to which considerable public notoriety or controversy has attached. Public interest is not confined to publications on government and political matters, nor is it necessary that the plaintiff be a “public figure”.
The following factors may aid the jury in determining whether a defamatory communication on a matter of public interest was responsibly made: (a) the seriousness of the allegation; (b) the public importance of the matter; (c) the urgency of the matter; (d) the status and reliability of the source; (e) whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported; (f) whether the inclusion of the defamatory statement was justifiable; (g) whether the defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it was made rather than its truth; and (h) any other relevant circumstances.
Here are the links to the decisions: