Can a public body sue for defamation?

Can a public body sue for defamation?
Mr Henry Heng, chief executive officer of the Council for Private Education (CPE). The statutory body has been set up to enforce new, stricter laws for private schools.

IT IS clear from case law that individual workers in public bodies may sue a citizen they feel has defamed them as civil servants or politicians.

However, it is not clear in law currently whether the public bodies they work for may also sue citizens for defamation. This is because no such case had ever come before the courts. Until now.

This issue was dragged into the spotlight following a suit provoked by the Council of Private Education's (CPE) threat to sue a blogger for defamation. The blogger applied in April to the High Court to declare that a public body was not entitled under common law to sue a citizen. Both parties have now dropped all legal action, but the issue persists.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan says he "can't recall a case of a public body suing an individual for defamation here". He feels that public bodies may have chosen not to sue to avoid criticism that they were muzzling critics. Threatening to sue may just be part of the process of seeking a remedy like a retraction, correction or apology, Prof Tan felt.

Three issues of interest remain. The first is whether a public body suing a private citizen for defamation chills free speech.

In Britain, Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd (1993) laid down the principle in common law that a public body is barred from suing a citizen for defamation because this would discourage free speech.

In Goh Chok Tong v Jeyaretnam , the Singapore High Court referred in its ruling to "the question whether Singapore law, being premised on English common law, should follow suit" to adopt the Derbyshire principle. But since the case involved a politician and not a public body suing an individual, the High Court left it to the Court of Appeal to deal with the issue if and when a public body should ever sue a citizen.

As Mr M.Ravi, the blogger's lawyer noted, the Derbyshire principle is accepted in other common law nations like Canada, Australia, India and Malaysia.

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