Hong Kong minister and wife spared HK$230,000 bill as appeal court overturns defamation ruling

Family that accused the couple of sending defamatory emails in school cheating row must now settle legal costs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 11:11pm

Development minister Paul Chan Mo-po and his wife have been spared the need to pay HK$230,000 in compensation after the appeal court overturned a ruling that they were liable for defaming their daughter’s twin classmates and their father by alleging they cheated at school.

The three judges found that the “desire” of Chan and his wife, Frieda Hui Po-ming, to protect the interests of the pupils in general played a “significant part” in their actions.

“Some people may regard them as obstinate or even swayed by prejudice, but we agree ... that there is no evidence of them not believing in their own cause throughout the incident,” the judges wrote in their judgment handed down on Friday.

Minister’s wife was standing up for ‘values’

Chan and his wife filed an appeal after the High Court in 2014 found the couple liable for defaming Jonathan and Caitlin Lu and their father in six emails between December 1 and 16, 2011. The emails contained allegations that the twins had cheated in an examination at the Chinese International School.

Hui claimed she had heard the cheating rumour from her daughter Joyce – who attended the same school – and began to send emails, which were jointly signed by her husband, to the school and about 10 parents to discuss the incident.

The Lu family requested an apology from the couple but they refused. The family then launched the lawsuit in March 2012.

Chan and his wife lost the case and were ordered to pay compensation totalling HK$230,000. The jury found that all six emails were defamatory, while four of them were also malicious.

In a subsequent decision handed down in October 2015, High Court judge Mr Justice Anthony To Kwai-fung accepted that the two emails not found to have been malicious were protected by qualified privilege­ – a defence for the maker of a statement who has an interest or duty to communicate with the recipient.

The Lus were then ordered to pay the Chans’ legal bills in relation to the later ruling.

While the Chans pursued legal action to clear their names, the Lus also filed an appeal and sought to set aside To’s decision on qualified privilege and legal costs.

The two emails were not mere gossip
The appeal court’s finding

After hearing arguments from both sides, Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon, Madam Justice Susan Kwan Shuk-hing and Mr Justice Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor, ruled in favour of the Chans.

The Court of Appeal found that the circumstances surrounding the two emails published without malice “overwhelmingly” supported the Chans’ case of qualified privilege.

“The two emails were not mere gossip. They were based on the observation of [the Lus’] behaviour as seen by their fellow students,”the judges stated.

The two emails raised legitimate concerns that the parents had in common, they continued.

The Court of Appeal declined to order a retrial, even though it found that the trial judge had not given adequate direction to the jury on the question of malice and that the Chans’ case on lack of malice had not been properly considered by the jury.

“[There] is no evidence on which a properly directed jury can make a finding of malice on the part of the defendants,” it stated.

In a statement, Chan and Hui said they hoped the incident could come to an end. “Justice has been done,” they said.

The Lus were ordered to foot the Chans’ legal bills relating to the present appeal and previous lawsuits between the two parties.