Dear Mirror Lawyer, I write this letter with heightened emotions as I recount the events of last night.
I had a very heated argument with my neighbour because I suspected him of sleeping with my wife behind my back when I am away at work or on business trips.
In the course of the argument, he called me a toothless bulldog and a useless husband who cannot take care of my family and wife’s needs.
I am very angry and want to sue him for defamation. Can I bring an action against him for defamation?
Richard Layla, Madina
Dear Richard, Defamation has been defined in the case of Parmiter v Couplands as ‘a publication without justification or lawful excuse, calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, ridicule or contempt’. However, for a court of law to conclude that words constitute defamation, there is a four-tier test that must be applied to the words communicated.
The first test to be applied is that the communication must be capable of a defamatory meaning. In the case of Sim v Stretch, the defendant sent a telegram to the plaintiff asking him to send the possessions of a maid together with the money that had been borrowed from her.
The plaintiff was offended and claimed that the communication meant that he was in financial difficulty and had to borrow from a maid. The court held that the words were not capable of a defamatory meaning since the words did not lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of the society.
The second test is that the words spoken must actually be defamatory such that they must be interpreted in their fair and natural meaning as ordinary men would understand it. However, in a case where innuendo is pleaded, this test will not apply.
An innuendo comes about when a statement possesses extrinsic facts which occasion extra meaning to be communicated to the person even though, on the face of it, the words communicated may not be defamatory.
The third test is that the words communicated must refer to the plaintiff. In the case of Knupfer v London Express Newspaper, the defendants published an article referring to an association of political refugees which, it was admitted, could have been defamatory if it had been written about a named individual.
It was held that the applicant was not entitled to damages as the words were written by a class and he had failed to show that they were pointed at him as an individual, i.e. there was no reference to him.
Finally, the words must be published. This means that making the defamatory matter known to a person other than the plaintiff. It need not be a large audience.
However, despite the existence of all these factors, the position of the law is that words spoken in the heat of an argument or a debate cannot constitute defamation. In the case of Bonsu v Forson, the plaintiff and the defendant, who had been friends, had a heated quarrel.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendant said to him, "You are a thief, you are a hopeless lawyer and if it had not been for Owusu Afriyie, you would have no clients"; and "you are hopeless MP"
The court was of the view that although the words were capable of a defamatory meaning, they were not defamatory since they had been spoken in the heat of an argument. Thus, it is unfortunate that although the words used by your neighbour are capable of a defamatory meaning, you cannot institute an action against him for defamation since the words were spoken in the heat of an argument.