An Indian holy man who tried to sue a British journalist over claims he was an impostor had his libel action halted by the High Court yesterday.
His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj attempted to sue Hardeep Singh through the British courts despite allegedly never having set foot in the country.
Jeet Singh claimed that an article written by Mr Singh in a British newspaper suggested he was the leader of a cult and promoted blasphemy and the sexual exploitation and abuse of women.
However, in what critics described as a victory for freedom of speech, a judge yesterday refused to let the case go ahead.
The move comes amid concern about the growth of libel tourism – by which overseas claimants sue through British courts to exploit our strict libel laws.
The libel action centred on an article Mr Singh wrote about Jeet Singh, who is head of Nirmal Kutia Johal – a religious institution which follows the teachings of the Nirmal Sikh faith.
Writing in the Sikh Times in 2007, Mr Singh said Jeet Singh was an “accused cult leader” whose teachings contradict true Sikh teaching and doctrine.
He claimed that the holy man, who became leader in 2002, had disturbed the peace of the British Sikh community by laying claim to three Temples in High Wycombe, Bradford and Birmingham.
The article also alleged that Jeet Singh had gone against his religion’s principles of equality by demanding that he be worshipped personally.
Mr Singh, from Slough, Berkshire, denied libel, pleading justification, fair comment and qualified privilege.
His counsel Mark Hill QC told Mr Justice Eady in London that the trial due to start yesterday, could not proceed as any finding would require the court to enter into issues of doctrine, tradition and practice of the Sikh religion which was contrary to established legal authority.
He said: “The key point is that the claimant’s purported appointment to the post in the Sikh religion which he claims to hold is irregular.”
Agreeing that the action would have to be “stayed”, the judge said it did appear that issues of a religious or doctrinal nature permeated the proceedings.
“The issue of whether he is or is not fairly described as an impostor cannot be resolved without reference to Sikh doctrine,” he said.
He refused permission to appeal although an application can be renewed before the Court of Appeal.
In a statement, Hardeep Singh said the libel action was intended to intimidate and was brought by a wealthy man trying to use English law to silence a critic.
When legal action was threatened, the Sikh Times apologised, but Hardeep Singh was made of sterner stuff. He was determined to stand by his writing, despite the fact that English libel law is hostile to writers, and the costs associated with a libel trial are horrendous. Whoever lost the case could have ended up facing legal bills of up to £1m.
Fortunately for Hardeep Singh, and anybody who wants to write about religious affairs, Mr Justice Eady yesterday ruled that matters of religious doctrine could not be decided in a libel court. He placed the case of “His Holiness v Singh” on a permanent stay. Unfortunately, Hardeep Singh will have suffered over two years of extreme stress and will remain probably £50,000 out of pocket: seemingly the standard price journalists have to pay in the UK to defend their right to free speech.
It is no wonder that publishers and writers in a similar position – confident that their articles are fair, but threatened with libel – buckle, apologise and settle rather than fighting their corner.
The good news is that all three main parties made manifesto commitments to libel reform prior to the election. Even better, the coalition agreement (point 10) includes a line that commits the government to the “review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech”.
There is nothing explicit in this promise, but it shows that the issue has not been forgotten.
[T]he Hardeep Singh case is an excellent reminder that it is time for radical reform. Whether we are debating religion, politics, health or science, it is crucial that libel law does not chill debate and silence criticism.