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Colonial Cases

Simmons v. Mitchell, 1880

[slander]

Simmons v. Mitchell

Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
26 November 1880
Source: The Times, 27 November, 1880

LAW REPORT, Nov. 26.
JUDICIAL COMMITTEE OF THE PRIVY COUNCIL.
(Present - Sir James Colville, Sir Barnes Peacock, Sir Montague Smith, and Sir Robert Collier.)
SIMMONS v. MITCHELL.
  This was an important appeal from a judgment of the Appellate Court of the Windward Islands of the 27th of October, 1879, leaving undisturbed a decision of the Supreme Court of Grenada, by which a rule for a new trial in an action for slander was discharged with costs.
  Mr. Meadows White, Q.C., and Mr. J. A. M'Leod were counsel for the appellant; Mr. J. D. Fitzgerald for the respondent.
  The appellant, Mr. Charles Simmons, is a merchant and justice of the peace in the island of Grenada, and he instituted an action, claiming £5,000 damages, against the respondent, Mr. Samuel Mitchell, who is the Clerk of the Crown, and formerly the Colonial Secretary there, for having, as was alleged, slandered him by stating that he lay under suspicion of having murdered a man  named Emmanuel Vaucrossen, his brother-in-law, at the Spout some years ago; that a proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of the murderer was now in the Crown Office; and that there was only one link waiting to complete the case. He also stated that he had spoken to the Attorney-General of Grenada and a Dr. Orgius about it.  The respondent pleaded not guilty, and the action was tried in May, 1878, before the Chief Justice of Grenada and a special jury. At the trial the words were proved to have been spoken to the appellant's brother, to Dr. Orgius, and to Mr. Beckwith, a chemist; and it was shown that the respondent, as Clerk of the Crown, had in his custody the record of judicial proceedings and inquests.
  The case being closed, the respondent's counsel moved for a nonsuit on the ground that the alleged slanders amounted at most to words of mere suspicion, and did not convey any positive or absolute imputation or charge of an indictable offence, and were, therefore, not actionable; and, further, that the meaning assigned to the words by the innuendoes given in the appellant's declaration were also not actionable. It was  also urged that the so-called slanders were privileged communications, having been spoken by a public officer in the discharge of his duty to forward the ends of justice and in the prosecution of an inquiry into a suspected crime, and that no malice had been proved.
  On the other hand, the appellant contended that the words used amounted to an actual imputation that he had committed murder. The Chief Justice (Mr. Gresham) intimated his intention to order a nonsuit on the ground that the words, being of mere suspicion only, did not disclose a case of slander.  The appellant declined to submit to a nonsuit, and, by the directions of the Judge, the jury found a verdict for the respondent. The appellant then applied for a new trial, urging that the sense in which the words were used was a question for the jury, and that the verdict was wrong in law and against the weight of the evidence.
  The Court discharged the rule, and the appellant then brought the matter before the Appellate Court of the Windward Islands, consisting of the Chief Justice of St. Lucia, Tobago, St. Vincent, and Barbadoes. The Court was divided in opinion, the two former Judges thinking that the decision of the Supreme Court should be affirmed, and the two latter holding that there should be a new trial. In consequence of that division of opinion, the order of the Chief Justice of Grenada, refusing a new trial, remained undisturbed; but no costs were awarded to the respondent.  Hence the present appeal to Her Majesty in Council.
  Sir Robert Collier, who delivered the judgment of their Lordships, said it was to be observed that the appellant himself in his declaration did not, in any of his innuendoes, assert that the words of which he complained imputed to him the crime of felony. The innuendoes, in fact, showed no more than the words themselves; and if these words conveyed only a mere suspicion, the innuendoes did not carry them a step further. It had been argued that, since the Common Law Procedure Act (section 61) had been passed, the innuendoes might be rejected and the prefatory statement substituted for them; that statement in this case asserting that the respondent, contriving and intending to injure the appellant, and to cause it to be believed that he had been guilty of murder, uttered the words in question. Their Lordships, however, thought that that was not so, and that the various innuendoes in which the appellant undertook to explain the meaning of the words could not be afterwards rejected and replaced by a formal averment conjecturing the motives by which the respondent was alleged to have been actuated.
  It had further been contended that the innuendoes might be rejected altogether, and that the words themselves were capable of two meanings - first, that the respondent imputed to the appellant a suspicion of committing a felony; and secondly, that he had, in fact, committed a felony. The law was clear that words merely imputing a suspicion of a person being guilty of felony were not sufficient to support an action for slander; and that such as [line missing] actual imputation of guilt.
  With regard to three of the four counts their Lordships had had no difficulty.  The words contained in their ordinary and natural sense suspicion and suspicion only, and therefore by the law, of the policy of which their Lordships expressed no opinion, those words would not support an action of that kind. They had had more doubt, however, in the remaining count, which alleged that the respondent had said, - "Have you not heard that Charles Simmonds is suspected of having murdered Vaucrossen, his brother-in-law? A proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of the murderer is now in my office, and there is only one link waiting to complete the case." It had been argued with some force that the meaning of those words was that the man had been guilty of murder, but that the technical proof against him was not wholly complete. Their Lordships, after giving their best consideration to that count, had come to the conclusion that such an interpretation would amount to a straining of the words in a sense which they would not naturally bear.
  That being so, they thought that the learned Chief Justice of Grenada was not wrong in withdrawing the case from the jury. If the words had, in a natural manner, admitted of the two interpretations of suspicion and guilt, it might have been proper for the jury to have decided the sense in which they considered they had been used; but as, in their ordinary and natural sense, they did not contain the two meanings, but only the less offensive one, their Lordships could not say that the Judge was at fault in his directions to the jury. Two of the learned Chief Justices, before whom the case was  brought, seemed to have laid great stress on a statement by one of the witnesses (the appellant's brother) that he did not consider the respondent's statement as abuse, but a serious charge against the appellant of murdering a man. But their Lordships would point out that the law was that a witness could not be asked in respect to certain spoken words in an action for slander, "What did you understand by those words?"  For these reasons their Lordships were of opinion that the order of the Chief Justice of Grenada, discharging the rule for a new trial, was right, and they would humbly advise Her Majesty to make the order which the Appellate Court of the Windward Islands ought to have made, confirming the decision of the Chief Justices. Considering, however, all the circumstances of the case, and that the Appellate Court had refused to grant the respondent's costs, the appeal would be dismissed, but without costs.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School