Case Law: Shergill v Purewal – another “religious libel” case stayed.

28 01 2011

The judgment in Shergill v Purewal ([2010] EWHC 3610 (QB)) given on 15 December 2010 by Sir Charles Gray has now been posted on the indispensable Bailii website.   The claimant was a Sikh activist who sued the “Panjab Times” and a person he claimed was its editor for libel. Mr Shergill alleged that three articles in the newspaper meant that he sought to instigate serious riots and create an atmosphere of terror by proclaiming that Baba Jeet Singh had won a case in an Indian court, and that he was seeking to misappropriate religious centres in Oldbury, Birmingham and High Wycombe by trick and false rumours, and that he would be responsible for any unpleasant incidents which occurred.

The defendants applied for a stay of the action, arguing that it was in essence a religious dispute, and that the claims were inextricably linked with doctrinal issues and disputes within the Sikh community over Sant Baba Jeet Singh’s succession following the sudden death in March 2002 of another leader, who left no will and had not named a successor.

Sir Charles Gray said there were two questions to be answered.  The first was whether, as the claimant argued, no proper doctrinal issues arose in the case.  The second – which would arise only if the answer to the first was that doctrinal issues did arise – was whether it would nevertheless be possible to divorce those issues and, if necessary, adapt non-doctrinal issues so that the case could proceed, even if only on a limited basis.

The defences in the case included pleas of justification in relation to all three articles, as well as an that the claimant was a follower of a sect which was not part of mainstream Sikhism and that the congregation should be aware of this and not be tricked into thinking otherwise, and an allegation that Mr Shergill had no genuine interest in bringing these proceedings, but was seeking to gag the defendants and prevent them from criticising his active campaign to establish control and ownership of the three centres.

Sir Charles Gray said

it is open to a defendant in a libel action to justify words of which the claimant complains in any meaning which those words are reasonably capable of bearing. In my judgment, it would not be possible to hive off or divorce the issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of the claims that Baba Jeet is the successor to the sainthood. To attempt to do so would be unjust to the defendants. It appears to me to be fundamental to their case on justification that the claims of Baba Jeet to be the true leader and owner of the Gurduwaras are unjustified. It is the defendants’ case that the “provocative” and troublemaking claims by Mr Shergill and others that Baba Jeet is the “Holy Saint” were the reason why tension was created by their visits to the Gurduwara on 11th and 15th June 2008″. [34]

The judge went on to say that he was  of the clear view that a fair trial of the claim in relation to the first and second articles “would be impossible if the defendants were to be prevented from advancing their pleaded case as to why those articles were substantially true” [35]. This was because

That pleaded case inevitably raised the doctrinal issues relating to the Sikh religion and its traditions. This case, like the cases of Blake and Baba Jeet v Hardeep Singh, is one where, in my view, it is impossible to adapt the issues in such a way as to circumvent the insuperable obstacle placed in the way of a fair trial of the action by the fact that the court is bound to abstain from determining questions which lie at the heart of the case” [35]

This is the second time within the last year that the High Court has stayed a libel action involved Sant Baba Jeet Singh, who since 2002 has been head of Nirmal Kutia Johal – a religious institution which follows the teachings of the Nirmal Sikh faith.  The first was the decision of Mr Justice Eady in His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet v Hardeep Singh [2010] EWHC 1294 (QB).  That case is due to be heard by the Court of Appeal on 28 February or 1 March 2011 although, as Sir Charles Gray pointed out [27], it appears that counsel for the appellant accepted that the courts will not determine religious doctrinal disputes, nor will they pronounce on whether religious procedures have been properly observed.

Discussion

It is well established that the English courts will not generally adjudicate on issues of religious doctrine, the procedures adopted by religious bodies or the customs and practices of a particular religious community or questions as to the moral and religious fitness of a person to carry out the spiritual and pastoral duties of his office.  As see Munby J put it

“…the starting point of the law is a tolerant indulgence to cultural and religious diversity and an essentially agnostic view of religious beliefs. It is not for a judge to weigh one religion against another. The court recognises no religious distinctions and generally speaking passes no judgment on religious beliefs or the tenets, doctrines or rules of any particular section of society. All are entitled to equal respect, whether in times of peace, or, as at present, amidst the clash of arms.” (in Pawandeep Singh v Entry Clearance Officer [2005] 1 QB 608 at [67]).

Nevertheless, as Adam Wagner pointed out in a post on the UK Human Rights Blog about the Hardeep Singh case,

whilst some issues are straightforwardly “religious” in nature, some are less so, and the courts may sometimes be willing to rule on an issue even if a group effected by the ruling sees it as essentially religious in character. For example, the Supreme Court saw itself as fully capable of ruling that the Jewish Free School admissions policy, which is based on ancient principles of Orthodox Jewish religious doctrine, ran foul of the race discrimination law“.

Although the courts sensibly seek to avoid being drawn into adjuciating on religious disputes, it is inevitable that, from time to time, the courts will be required to rule on ancillary “religious” issues.  In the Shergill case although the background was religious, there were also allegations that the claimant was a party to “conspiracies to provoke violence”.    It is arguable that the decision goes too far, and breaches the claimant’s right to access to court under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.   It will be interesting to see how this issue is dealt with by the Court in Hardeep Singh.

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One response

25 02 2011
Mr Barjinder Sahota

I acted for the Defendants in this action. Readers might like to know that Smith LJ granted permission (on paper) to the Defendants against the adverse costs order made by Sir Charles when he stayed this action on 15.12.2010. Sir Charles said that ‘winning’ Defendants had to pay the losing Claimants costs from the date the Defendants ‘should’ have made the stay application, which he said was shortly after Eady J’s stay in the His Holiness Baba Jeet case on 17 May 2010 (which was, by co-incidence, my application as I acted for Hardeep Singh). The Shergill cost order effectively gives the losing Claimant a ‘windfall’ in costs. In granting us permission (on 15.02.11) Smith LJ said: ‘I think it is arguable that the order in question exceeded the ambit of the judge’s discretion. I have no doubt that the judge was entitled to make the order reflecting his view that the application for a stay should have been made much sooner but I think it arguable that the order should not have been of such drastic effect.’

It will be interesting to see how the CA determines the obligations on Defendants to get into the ‘driving seat’ and make a risky and contested interim application, or risk the wrath of the trial judge in not doing so. Tactically and evidentially it was not in my clients’ interests to make an early application. If this order is not overturned then all Defendants, need to be nervous, they are on notice that they need to get in the ‘driving seat’, or be penalised in costs if they adopt a cautionary no risk of interim costs approach. It should be an interesting appeal. Barjinder Sahota http://www.libel-law.co.uk

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