A solicitor libelled in a small circulation community newspaper has been awarded £70,000 in damages in a case described as ‘a real tragedy’ by a High Court judge. 

In Sooben v Badal, The Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin found that Anbananden Sooben had been defamed in an interview published in 2013 by Mauritius Now, a publication with a circulation of 1,000 among the Mauritian community in the UK. The interviewee alleged that an individual identifiable as Sooben had conspired to commit perjury. 

Nicklin said the allegation was particularly damaging because of Sooben’s profession. ’As is well-known, solicitors are officers of the court… It is difficult to imagine a more serious allegation to make against the professional reputation of a solicitor than a willingness to pervert the course of justice.’

The judgment strongly criticises the newspaper’s editor, Eshan Badel, for withdrawing a defence of justification - truth - only at the last minute. This will have aggravated the hurt and anger the claimant felt, Nicklin said.

As the publication pre-dated the Defamation Act 2013, which introduced a statutory public interest defence, the publisher attempted to argue a common law Reynolds defence. The judge dismissed this on two grounds, saying the defendant had failed to meet the required tests of reasonable inclusion and responsible journalism. In particular, there was ’no real attempt’ to verify the information or to contact Sooben. The defendant’s claim that it was impossible to contact Sooben was ‘simply not credible’, Nicklin said. 

Describing the case as a ‘real tragedy’ the judge noted that the defendant was a ’well-meaning, public-spirited, part-time volunteer’ but that his misunderstanding of defamation law was no excuse. He added: ’This case perhaps serves as an example of the need for parties to keep in mind the very real consequences that hard-fought litigation can have.’

Lee Schama, instructed by MDL Solicitors, acted for the claimant, Philip Williams and Harriet Cotter, instructed by Lambeth Solicitors, for the defendant.