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Significance of Mens Rea in Defamation

This article critically analyses the definition of intention, how intention especially mens rea is immaterial in the tort of defamation and why is it so. We will even go through some exceptional cases of defamation under torts where the intention was looked into and the accused was not held liable. Then there is a brief discussion on criminal defamation, their intention playing a very important role, and the cases thereof. Therefore, the main focus of the article is to look into the whole concept of intention mainly focusing on defamation under the law of torts.

Defamation is the publication of a defamatory sentence which may be written(libel) or oral(slander) and which may harm the reputation of a person.

In Dixon v. Holden, (1869) 7 Eq. 488 Defamation was defined as Defamation is an injury to the reputation of a person. If an individual injures the reputation of another, he does so at his own risk, as in the case of an interference with the property. A man's reputation is like his own property and many at times it has more value than the property

The defamation in the law of torts has the following essentials:
  • The statement must be false and defamatory
  • It must be published
  • In case of slander, the proof of damage is necessary but not in cases that are actionable per se
  • The defamatory statement must refer to the plaintiff

Criminal Defamation:

It is the act of defaming or offending the person by committing a crime or offense for which you are liable and punished under IPC.

Civil Defamation:

It is the act of defaming a person for which you are punished under the law of torts and the defamed person can sue you for the damage caused to you.

In the case of D.P. Choudhary v. Manjutala:
The plaintiff-respondent, Manjulata, was of 17 years of age belonging to an educated family in Jodhpur, and was doing B.A. A false statement was published in a local newspaper, Dainik Navjyoti, dated 18.12.1977 that last night at 11 pm Manjutala went out of the house on the excuse of attending the classes in college and ran away with a boy named Kamlesh. This statement was untrue, defamatory, and was published very negligently with no responsibility.

She was very much humiliated by the people who knew her and her marriage prospectus was greatly affected. It was held by the court that these statements are defamatory, actionable per se and the defendant is liable for general damages for Rs10,000.

In the case of Ram Jethmalani v. Subramaniam Swamy, while a commission inquiry was set to look into the facts and circumstances of the case of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the defendant at a press conference alleged that the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had a prior knowledge that the LTTE cadre would make an assassination bid on the life of late Shri Rajiv Gandhi. The plaintiff was engaged as a senior counsel for the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

The plaintiff cross-examined the defendant as his professional duty. The defendant said in a statement that the plaintiff was receiving some kind of money from the LTTE which is a banned organization. This statement was held to be ex facie defamatory, exceeded the privilege, and was held to be evidence of malice.

  • Why intention is immaterial in defamation under the law of torts?
  • Why intention is very important in defamation under IPC?
  • Why in certain cases intention was immaterial under IPC?

The basic definition of Intention

Intention In English Law:

Intention is generally defined in terms of foresight of particular consequences and a desire to act or fail to act so that those consequences occur.

The intent is a mental attitude with which individual acts, and thus it cannot ordinarily be directly proved but must be inferred from surrounding facts and circumstances. Intent refers only to the state of mind with which the act is done or omitted.

Motive and Intention are many times used interchangeably but they are very different from each other. The main difference between intention and motive is that intention is the mental state of the accused i.e., what's going on in his mind while he is committing the crime, while motive is the motivation i.e., what drives a person to commit or refrain from doing something.

Intention as an essential element in defamation in the law of torts
When there is defamation in the law of torts, the intention is not necessarily essential. When the words are considered to be defamatory by the people to whom they are published, it is defamation even though the people who published those statements had no intention to harm their reputation.

Even if they had no idea that the statement published by them is not true, that statement will be considered defamatory and they will be liable for defamation. The fact that the statement published was published with a good intention or with a bona fide intention is no defense in a suit for defamation.

In Cassidy V. Daily Mirror Newspaper Ltd, Mr. Cassidy or Mr. Corrigan was married to a lady named Mrs. Cassidy or Mrs. Corrigan. She was a lawfully wedded wife of Mr. Cassidy who did not live with her with occasionally came to live with her in her flat. The Daily Mirror Newspaper published in their newspaper a photograph of Mr. Cassidy with Miss 'X' and underneath the photograph, it was written that the racehorse owner (Mr. Corrigan) and Miss. 'X' are getting engaged.

The statements made by the defendant were obviously not true. Mrs. Corrigan sued the daily mirror newspaper for libel alleging that the innuendo was that Mr. Corrigan wasn't her husband and he lived together with her in immoral cohabitation. Due to this a bad reputation was formed of her in front of her acquaintances and other people because of the publication of the defamatory statement.

The jury found that the statements made by the defendant conveyed defamatory meaning and awarded damages to the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals held that the innuendo was established and even though the statements made were innocent, it cannot be taken as a defense and henceforth they are liable.

In B.M. Thimmaiah V. T.M. Rukmini, the plaintiff, Smt. Rukmini along with B. Krishnappa and five others filed a suit seeking a declaration that the resolution passed by the defendants, with regard to the management of the affairs of C.A.H.P. & N. School, Padarayanapura, Bangalore was illegal. The defendants in the above suit filed a written statement through their counsel, stating among other things:
It is pertinent to mention that Shri I.K. Belliyappa and B. Krishnappa are interested in the rival institutions and the relationship of Sri B. Krishnappa and Smt. Rukmini is very doubtful.

It was this statement which was made by the defendant which led to the filing of the above suit by the plaintiff against the defendant stating that the above allegations made in the written statement undoubtedly show that the defendant was trying to convey that there is a questionable and doubtful relationship between both Krishnappa and Rukmini.

Refuting the defense raised by the defendants, the court ruled that it is not necessary to establish malice or evil intention of the defendants and they cannot take defense out of it.
In Morrison V. Ritihie & Co, the defendant in good faith published a statement that the plaintiff had given birth to twins but they had been married only two months back. Even though there was no mala fide intention from the defendant's side and they published the statement mistakenly, they were still held liable for defamation.

Intention as an essential to defamation in IPC
Under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defamation has been defined as whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person is said to defame that person.

So basically, when we read this definition again, we will go through the word intention quite a few times which is not included in the definition of defamation in the law of torts. It has been focused here that any person who has the intention that the other person will read, see or hear a particular statement and that statement will harm the reputation of the other person is liable under defamation in IPC along with the other essentials.

If we want to invite the provisions contained in Section 499/500, I.P.C., a magistrate has to look into it that the requirement of mens rea has been fulfilled in the case because it is a necessary essential in the I.P.C.

Winfield in Tort has stated that in the law of defamation there comes confusion as malice can be intentionally doing a wrongful act without just cause or justification, or doing an act with an evil motive, or it may be totally independent of the evil motive i.e., being a careless or honest mistake.

There are two stages of malice in defamation and its meaning varies:
  1. First, in his statement of claim, the usual practice is for the plaintiff to allege that defendant published the words falsely and maliciously. Here malice does not mean enmity or any other bad motive. It is usually said that it means the wrongful intention which the law always presumes to accompany an unlawful act, i.e., it is equivalent to sense. That is true, but it is not the whole truth, for the term also covers cases, where there is no intention at all, and includes sense, thus a man may quite possibly be held liable for defamation where he made only an honest mistake.
  2. The second stage of the action is that in which maliciously is not a mere adverb but is a term of substance, and the plaintiff needs to prove it by evidence. There are two defenses in an action for defamation, the first being that the statement made by the defendant was a fair comment and the second being that it is a privileged statement. If the defendant is able to establish either of these defenses, the plaintiff cannot succeed unless he/she proves that there was a malice' on the defendant's part. If this is proved, then the whole plea of fair comment and privileged statement will be destroyed.

In Harbhajan Singh V. State Of Punjab (1965) certain statements were published by one of Punjab daily against the son of the Chief Minister of Punjab at that time saying that he is connected with the group of people who are smuggling. The Government of Punjab issued a press note stating that the allegations made were wrong and they are being made with the view to malign the Government and that they should come forward with the name of the son.

The appellant replied to this by naming the Chief Minister's son as the leader of the smugglers and as also responsible for a large number of crimes. The Chief Minister's son then filed a complaint of defamation against the appellant. After examination of the various evidence, the appellant was convicted by the trial court. He then appealed to the High Court and took the defense of an exception that he published the statement in good faith and for the public good. In this particular case, the appellant was not held liable and it was said that neither ill-will nor malice is an ingredient of the offense of defamation, and want of either, cannot serve as a defense.

An unproved plea of justification, unwise cross-examination of the plaintiff, and stubbornly persisting in the libelous charge without any sufficient reason, may be taken into consideration, as evidence of malice. Malice at law does not mean that the accused was actuated with hatred or ill will or even that he had an actual intent to defame such a person. It suffices that the statement was made willfully or purposely or without any lawful excuse or justification.

Smt. Lalliani V. R.L. Rina (1986):
Lalzoua was a renowned poet of Mizoram who composed songs but unfortunately, he died in December 1945. While he was dead his songs left an image in the minds of Mizos and they wanted to know more about his life and him. The respondent R.L. Rina published a biography on him with the help of Lalzoua's sister Mrs. Siamliani.

A common feature in the name of the complainant and Mrs. Siamliani is the word liani suffixed to the name of both of them which means sweet or darling. After the complainant read the biography, she alleged that she has been described as the sweetheart and the first lover of the poet.

According to her, the poet claimed that she was the inspiration behind all the love songs and many other things. The petitioner-complainant lodged a complaint under Sec. 500 of the Indian Penal Code states that the imputations were defamatory and the accused shall be punished. Certain damages were paid to the complainant by the writer and the sister, but the writer went for an appeal and the Court of District Council held that the accused party never knew that the complainant was anywhere referred to in the book and also, he had no intention of harming the reputation of the complainant. Therefore, the essential ingredients of the offense under Section 500 of the I.P.C are absent and no such case can be filed against anyone.

There are certain cases in the law of torts where the defendant was not held liable for Defamation because there was the absence of mens rea.

In Depak Kumar Biswas v/s National Insurance Co. Ltd., the appellant was engaged as counsel by the Insurance Company in an arbitration matter. The award so passed has become a rule of the court. But the appellant did not make any communication to the Insurance Company as to the award becoming a rule of court.

As a result, the delay was caused on the part of the Insurance Company in presenting an appeal against the award. In the condonation petition, another counsel appointed by the Insurance Company wrote that the delay had occurred on account of laches on the part of a lawyer who was conducting arbitration case before arbitrator. The words said above were held not to necessarily cause an onslaught on the personal integrity or reputation of the appellant. The Gauhati High Court held that the Insurance Company had no motive or ill will to defame the appellant. The statement so made was held not defamatory.

In South Indian Railway Co. V. Ramakrishna, the railway guard, who was an employee of the defendant, South Indian Railway Co., went to one of the carriages to check everyone's ticket, the plaintiff being one of the passengers asked him to show his ticket and while everyone was present there said that the plaintiff is traveling without the ticket. The plaintiff showed the railway ticket to the defendant and then sued the railway company contending that the words spoken by the guard were defamatory. It was held that the words spoken by the guard were spoken bone fide and under the circumstances of the case, there was no defamation and the defendant could not be made liable for the same.

Defamation is one of the laws of torts where the intention is not seen as an essential element because it is very difficult to prove someone's mens rea. That being said you have to pay damages if all the essentials of defamation are fulfilled even though you had no mens rea.

But defamation under IPC works on different grounds. In this, if you have defamed someone, but it was a mistake and there was no mens rea then you won't be liable. But also, there are certain cases where even though there was no intention, people were held liable in the IPC because people's right to speech is not put over other people's right to reputation.

  • R K Bangia- Law of Torts
  • Mehrotra's commentary on the ´╗┐law of defamation

    Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Mushkan Verma
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