Delhi High Court dismisses defamation suit against Senior Advocate applying Doctrine of Absolute Privilege

Delhi High Court

Delhi High Court: In a defamation suit was filed aggrieved by the alleged defamatory statements made by the respondent seeking various reliefs, including a declaration of defamation, injunctions against further defamatory statements, and a mandatory apology from the respondent, a division bench of Rajiv Shakdher and Amit Bansal, JJ., held that the plaint was rightly rejected by the Single Judge since the cause of action for instituting the suit was founded on the alleged defamatory statement, because of the protection offered to the respondent by the doctrine of absolute privilege, the Court cannot entertain such cause.

The case at hand revolved around the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit concerning alleged defamatory statements made during court proceedings. The appellant initiated a defamation action against the respondent, a senior advocate, based on statements made during court proceedings on 14-07-2022. The appellant alleged that the respondent accused him of using unparliamentary language and abusing his mother during mediation proceedings. These statements were said to be made during the criminal revision petition. The appellant, aggrieved by the alleged defamatory statements made by the respondent, filed a defamation lawsuit seeking injunction against further defamatory statements, and a mandatory apology from the respondent.

Counsel for appellant argued that the alleged statements were false and defamatory, harming his reputation. He contended that absolute privilege should not shield the respondent from defamation liability as the statements were irrelevant to the ongoing court proceedings. The appellant emphasized the importance of their reputation as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. However, the respondent asserted that the alleged statements were made during judicial proceedings and were protected by absolute privilege. He argued that the statements were made based on instructions received from the appellant’s counsel-on-record and were necessary for the proceedings.

The Court carefully examined the assertions made by both parties and considered the principles of absolute privilege, which protects statements made during judicial proceedings from defamation actions. The Court emphasized the importance of contextualizing the alleged statements within the proceedings’ framework and whether they had any relevance to the subject matter at hand. The Court analyzed the exceptions to absolute privilege, considering whether the alleged statements had no reference to the subject matter of the proceedings. It concluded that the statements, even if assumed true, were protected by absolute privilege unless proven otherwise.

The Court noted that as regards the defence of privilege, it is of two kinds; qualified and absolute privilege. Qualified privilege ring-fences a defendant from a defamation action only when the privilege is properly exercised in performing legal or moral duties. Conversely, absolute privilege immunizes a defendant, no matter how wrongful or motivated the action is.

The Court remarked that “where Court and Parliamentary proceedings are concerned, the doctrine of privilege kicks in based on public interest. At times, when the defence of absolute privilege is not available, in exceptional cases, public policy can also preclude the Court from entertaining a claim. Thus, the doctrine of absolute privilege prohibits the entertainment of claims made against judges, counsel, witnesses or parties qua judicial proceedings made in Courts or tribunals. This privilege extends to witness statements, testimonies, and documents properly used and regularly prepared for use in judicial proceedings. The only exception that is carved out concerns a statement which is not uttered for the purposes of judicial proceedings by a person who has a duty to make a statement in the course of the proceedings, or the statement made has no reference at all to the subject matter of the proceedings. The doctrine of absolute privilege does not protect such statements. Therefore, in the given facts and circumstances, one would have to conclude that, since the alleged defamatory statement was made by the respondent, albeit orally, in the course of judicial proceedings held before the Sessions Court, it would be protected by the doctrine of absolute privilege, unless one were to hold that it had no reference to the subject proceedings.”

The Court upheld the dismissal of the defamation lawsuit, affirming the trial judge’s decision. It held that the alleged statements made by the respondent during court proceedings were protected by absolute privilege, barring any defamation action against the respondent. The Court rejected the appellant’s argument that the suit should proceed to trial, as the alleged cause of action was not recognized due to absolute privilege.

[Vikas Pahwa v. Pankaj Oswal, 2024 SCC OnLine Del 1193, decided on 21-02-2024]

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr Kamal M. Gupta, Mr Amber Shehbaz Ansari, Mr Aslam Khan and Mr Gorakh Nath Yadav, Advocates for appellant

Mr A.S. Chandhiok, Senior Advocate; Mr Arvind Nigam, Senior Advocate; Mr Sanjiv Kakra, Senior Advocate with Mr Bharat Arora, Mr Himanshu Tanwar, Ms Simran, Ms Vidushi Keshan and Mr Akash Madan, Advocates for respondents

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