Appeal court wants clear defamation test

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2008, 12:00am

The Court of Appeal has sought to clarify the test by which accusations of defamation should be measured by the city's courts.

Court vice-president Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching and Justice of Appeal Peter Cheung Chak-yau yesterday reluctantly reinstated a defamation case brought by a man who felt his reputation had been impugned by two letters sent out by the incorporated owners of the building in which he kept a shop.

The case had been dismissed by Madam Justice Carlye Chu Fun-ling last May after she had deduced that the parts of the letters complained of by the man, Wong Wing-ho, could not be said in their plain and ordinary meaning to contain anything defamatory. But the Court of Appeal yesterday ruled that the judge had adopted the wrong test.

'The test is not whether it is plain and obvious that the words are not defamatory, but rather whether it is plain and obvious that the words are incapable of bearing a defamatory meaning,' Mr Justice Cheung said.

The dispute centred on Mr Wong's alleged non-payment of water bills and his allegedly illegal use of a parking space at the Century Industrial Centre on Au Pui Wan Street in Fo Tan in the New Territories.

The defendants, Chong Lai-wah and Leung Kar-fai, were respectively the chairwoman and a member of the building's management committee, though the two letters complained of were signed on behalf of the committee.

The first of the letters, both of which were circulated to all owners in the building, dealt with Mr Wong's alleged misdeeds. The second described his behaviour as 'unreasonable' and claimed that the committee had been unable to perform some of its other duties because it was tied up dealing with him.

The Court of Appeal ruled it was arguable that the wording of the letters, especially of the headlines on them, was capable of having the defamatory impact complained of by Mr Wong. In any case, it was something that should have been left to a jury, the court said. It ordered that the case be reinstated and that Mr Wong's costs so far be covered by Ms Chong and Mr Leung.