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Apex court rules political parties cannot sue individuals for defamation

Federal Court sets aside earlier decisions by High Court and Court of Appeal in a defamation suit filed against Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng by MCA.

2 minute read
The Palace of Justice in Putrajaya which houses the Federal Court. Photo: AFP
The Palace of Justice in Putrajaya which houses the Federal Court. Photo: AFP

The Federal Court today ruled that political parties cannot sue individuals for defamation.

Court of Appeal president Rohana Yusuf, who chaired a seven-man bench, said the court had answered in the negative a legal question posed by Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng to strike out a defamation lawsuit filed against him by MCA.

The question was whether a political party can maintain a suit for defamation in light of the decision in Goldsmith v Bhoyrul (1998), an English case law which provided that political parties cannot be claimants in defamation suits.

In allowing the appeal by Lim, Rohana set aside the decisions of the High Court and Court of Appeal which had dismissed Lim’s application to strike out the suit.

In handing down the decision, Rohana said the court agreed with the submissions by Lim’s counsel Gopal Sri Ram.

She also said the court would give its grounds of judgment in the case.

In the proceedings, conducted via video conferencing, Sri Ram submitted that following the decisions in Goldsmith v Bhoyrul and Rajagopal v Jayalalitha, political parties could not sue for defamation.

He said both the government and political parties, being registered societies, cannot maintain a cause of action in defamation as societies and governments have no reputation.

He said the law of defamation protects the reputation of persons.

Sri Ram also said the court had wrongly decided in the case involving the Sarawak government against Sarawak DAP chairman Chong Chieng Jen, where the Federal Court ruled that the government could sue individuals for defamation.

In July 2017, then MCA secretary-general Ong Ka Chuan, on behalf of MCA, filed a defamation suit in his capacity as a public officer against Lim over remarks made at a press conference at the Parliament building in 2016 over allegations that the party had used government funds allocated for Chinese vernacular schools.

Ong claimed that Lim’s remarks seriously injured MCA’s reputation, adding that the party was seeking RM100 million in general and exemplary damages.

In Feb 27,2018, the High Court rejected Lim’s application to strike out the suit, and he lost his appeal at the Court of Appeal.

In the proceedings, Ong’s lawyer Ng Chew Hor argued that the suit should not be struck out but should go for trial at the High Court.

He also said political parties have a reputation to protect.

When contacted, lawyer Guok Ngek Seong, who also represented Lim, said since the Federal Court had answered the question of law in the negative, political parties cannot sue for defamation.