Defence of Justification (Truth) in Defamation in Australia


Article Summary

The article delves into the defence of justification under Section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005 (Qld), focusing on its application within Australian defamation law.

Previously conditioned on proving that the defamatory content was both true and publicly beneficial, the defence has since shifted towards a requirement that the imputations are “substantially true” alone.

The legal definition of “substantially true” suggests that the statements need not be exact in every detail but must capture the essence of the truth, emphasising the importance of relevance and seriousness over precise accuracy.

Key legal cases illustrate how courts interpret and apply this principle, underscoring the need for defendants to substantiate the core truth of the defamatory imputations while tolerating minor inaccuracies.

The article highlights the stringent standards and detailed scrutiny involved in invoking this defence, emphasising its critical role in balancing freedom of expression with protection from harm. The complexities of the defence are further explored through discussions on the “sting” of defamation— the pivotal essence of the claim that must be proved true for the defence to succeed.

It’s worth pointing out that while the cases mentioned in this article were adjudicated in different states and in Federal Court, the principles for asserting a justification defence in defamation lawsuits are uniform across jurisdictions, thanks to Australia’s Uniform Defamation Laws.

In this article, our defamation lawyers explain this in a lot more detail.

Table of Contents

Defence of Justification in Defamation

Section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005 (Qld) (“the Defamation Act”) states:

It is a defence to the publication of defamatory matter if the defendant proves that the defamatory imputations carried by the matter of which the plaintiff complains are substantially true.

In Australian defamation law, the defence of truth, also known as justification, requires that the defendant prove the substantial truth of the claims they’ve made.

Previously, under the repealed 1889 Act, a defendant in Queensland could only use this defence if they could demonstrate that the defamatory content was not only true but also beneficial to the public. However, changes in the 2005 Defamation Act have shifted to show that the defamatory statements are substantially true only.

So, if the imputations contained in the publication are substantially true, then this is a complete defence to a defamation claim.  But what does “substantially true” mean?  Our defamation solicitors explain below.

Substantial Truth of the Publication

Schedule 5 of the Defamation Act defines “substantially true” to mean:

“substantially true” means true in substance or not materially different from the truth.

The dictionary defines “substance in this context to mean:

importance, seriousness, or relationship to real facts

The dictionary defines “materially in this context to mean:

in an important or noticeable way

But what have the cases said about the defence of justification and substantial truth in a defamation matter?

In Howden v Truth & Sportsman Ltd [1937] HCA 74, the High Court said:

Lastly, to succeed in a plea of justification, the defendant must prove the truth of all the material statements contained in the libel; there must be a substantial justification of the whole libel … The defence depends upon the substantial truth of the defamatory meaning conveyed by a libel. Every material part of the imputations upon the plaintiff contained in the words complained of must be true; otherwise the justification fails as an answer to the action.

In Wash Investments Pty Ltd & Ors v SCK Properties Pty Ltd & Ors [2016] QDC 77, Ryrie DCJ said:

For the ‘justification’ defence to apply, a party must prove that what he has published is substantially true.  The concept of “being substantially true” denotes “not materially different”.  Further, use of the word ‘substantial’ suggests that if the publication is mostly true, then this may well be enough to raise this defence.

So, the definitions and the case law state that the defamatory matter in the imputations must be mostly true, mostly true in substance, essentially true, or mostly true.  It does not have to be 100% true.

In Wagner & Ors v Harbour Radio Pty Ltd & Ors [2018] QSC 201 Flanagan J said:

To succeed in a plea of truth, the defendant must prove that the imputations are true in substance or not materially different from the truth. What must be proved to be true is every material part of the imputation relied upon by the plaintiffs; errors in detail are tolerated.

In Harrington v Shoard [2023] QDC 11, Sheridan DCJ said at [83] and [84]:

The term “substantially true” is defined in s 4 of Schedule 5 of the Act to mean “true in substance or not materially different from the truth.” This means to succeed a defendant must prove that the imputations are true in substance or not materially different from the truth … Whilst errors in detail might be tolerated, a defendant must prove the truth of every part of the imputation relied upon.

In Channel Seven Sydney Pty Ltd v Mahommed [2010] NSWCA 335, the New South Wales Court of Appeal said the following at [138]:

In order to establish imputation 12 was substantially true, the appellant had to establish that every material part of it was true. However, this does not mean the appellant had to prove the truth of every detail of the words established as defamatory, rather the defence of substantial truth is concerned with meeting the sting of the defamation.

In Burston v Hanson [2022] FCA 1235, Bromwich J said at [164]:

The material parts are those which carry the defamatory sting.

What is the defamatory “sting” of the imputation?

The Sting of the Imputation

The defendant does not have to prove every detail of the defamatory statement is true; it is enough to prove the main facts of the matter are true (or substantially true).  In Caccavo, Ralph & Anor v Daft & Anor [2006] TASSC 36, Master S J Holt said at [3(v)]:

The justification plea does not need to allege the truth of every last meticulous detail of the plaintiffs’ drafted imputation, but sufficient must be alleged so that if proved the truth of the sting of the imputation will have been established.

Citing Lord Shaw of Dunfermline in Sutherland v Stopes [1925] AC 47 at [79], Master S J Holt gave an example:

If I write that the defendant on 6 March took a saddle from my stable and sold it the next day and pocketed the money, all without notice to me and that in my opinion he stole the saddle and if the facts truly are found to be that the defendant did not take the saddle from the stable but from the harness room and that he did not sell it the next day, but a week afterwards, but nevertheless he did without my knowledge or consent sell my saddle so taken and pocketed the proceeds, then the whole sting of the liable may be justifiably affirmed by a jury notwithstanding these errors in detail.

In summary, section 25 of the Defamation Act allows for a defence against defamation if the defendant can demonstrate that the harmful imputations are “substantially true,” defined as true in essence or not significantly different from the truth.

This concept emphasises the relevance or seriousness of the information over exact accuracy, suggesting that minor inaccuracies in the details are permissible as long as the core or “sting” of the defamation is true.

The defendant must prove the truth of all critical aspects of the imputation. Errors in detail of the matter are tolerated, provided they do not alter the overall substance of the imputation. For instance, slight discrepancies in how events occurred or minor factual mistakes are acceptable as long as they do not change the main accusation’s “sting” or essential truth.

This approach aligns with the principle that a defendant need not prove the literal truth of every detail of the imputations in the concerns notice, but must demonstrate the substantial truth of the allegations to defend successfully against a defamation claim.

Pleading the Defence of Justification

When a defendant uses a defence of justification in defamation proceedings, they must provide specific details about the facts of the matter they are relying on. These details should directly address the accusations the plaintiff claims arose from the publication.

If these details are not sufficiently provided, the plaintiff may be able to have the pleadings or particulars struck out due to its lack of specificity.

In Zierenberg and Wife v Labouchere [1893] UKLawRpKQB 102, Lord Esher, M.R said:

That a general plea of justification of a libel without particulars of that justification is bad has been the law from the earliest times.

In Wootton v Sievier [1913] UKLawRpKQB 114, the Court said:

… where a defendant raises an imputation of misconduct against the plaintiff, the plaintiff ought to be enabled to go to trial with knowledge of the acts which it is alleged he has committed and upon which the defendant intends to rely as justifying the imputation; and that if the particulars are such as the defendant ought to give, he cannot refuse to do so …

In Hickinbotham v Leach [1842] EngR 799, Parke B said:

It is a perfectly well-established rule in cases of libel or slander, that where the charge is general in its nature, the defendant, in a plea of justification, must state some specific instances of the misconduct imputed to the plaintiff … The plea ought to state the charge with the same precision as in an indictment.

In Sims v Wran [1984] 1 NSWLR 317, Hunt J said at [321]:

The fundamental principle in relation to particulars in defamation, as in any other case, is that a party must be made aware of the nature of the case he is called upon to meet … the object of particulars is to save expense in preparing to meet a case which may never be put … and to make the party’s case plain so that each side may know what are the issues of fact to be investigated at the hearing … It is not a question of whether one party has adequate knowledge of the actual facts; it is a question of whether he has adequate knowledge of what the other party alleges are the facts, for that is the case which he must meet …

In summary, the particulars must:

  1. Specificity Required – A general plea of justification for libel without detailed specifics of the matter is not acceptable. The defence must include particulars of the justification, a requirement that has been upheld consistently in legal history.
  2. Knowledge for Preparation – When a defendant alleges misconduct by the plaintiff, the plaintiff must have prior knowledge of the specific acts they are accused of committing, which the defendant intends to use to justify the imputation.
  3. Detail Similar to Indictment – In cases where the charges are general, the defendant must provide specific instances of misconduct in their plea of justification, detailed similarly to an indictment.
  4. Clarity and Fairness in Litigation – Particulars in a defamation case are crucial to ensure both parties are clear on the facts to be debated, allowing for fair preparation, and reducing unnecessary litigation expenses. This principle ensures that the defendant’s claims are made explicit, not just what the plaintiff knows to be the facts, but what the defendant alleges to be the facts.

Case Summaries – Defence of Justification

The “Case Summary” section provides a detailed examination of several legal cases where the defence of justification played a crucial role. This section explores how the defence is applied across various contexts, from consumer complaints and political statements to allegations of professional misconduct and criminal behaviour.

Each summary delves into the complexities of proving the substantial truth of defamatory statements. The cases illustrate the challenges parties face in demonstrating the truthfulness of their claims or defences, highlighting the high standards of evidence required. These summaries also discuss the impact of a plaintiff’s past activities and public statements on the outcomes of defamation cases, emphasising the nuanced interplay between factual accuracy and legal defences.

Through these analyses, the section sheds light on the stringent requirements for establishing the defence of justification, including the necessity for clear and convincing evidence that supports the truth of the allegations made. The summaries aim to provide insights into the procedural intricacies and strategic considerations that define defamation litigation, making it a valuable resource for understanding key legal principles in real-world applications.

Asbog Veterinary Services Pty Ltd & Anor v Barlow

The case of Asbog Veterinary Services Pty Ltd & Anor v Barlow [2020] QDC 112, centered around allegations of defamation made by Asbog Veterinary Services and Allen Stanislaus Brian O’Grady against Carrie Barlow due to several comments she posted online about their services. The comments were made after Barlow felt she was overcharged for veterinary services following an incident where her dog was attacked.

Barlow defended herself by asserting the truth of her statements, specifically under the defence of substantial truth or justification. This defence would be successful if she could prove that the defamatory imputations carried by her publications were substantially true.

The court did not find all of Barlow’s justifications convincing enough to establish that her statements were substantially true across all the points she raised.

The judge concluded that while there might have been some discrepancies in pricing, they did not amount to the level of overcharging or misconduct as alleged by Barlow in her publications.

The case highlights the complexity of proving the truth as a defence in defamation actions, especially when commercial services and pricing are involved. The court meticulously examined the factual basis behind each alleged defamatory statement against the evidence provided to assess the validity of the truth defence.

Hanson-Young v Leyonhjelm (No 4)

In Hanson-Young v Leyonhjelm (No 4) [2019] FCA 1981, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young sued Senator David Leyonhjelm over several public statements he had made criticising and making allegations against her following an incident in the Australian Senate.

The imputations made included that she claimed all men were rapists and that she was a hypocrite. Leyonhjelm claimed the defence of justification, stating that the claims he made were substantially true.

Following a lot of the cases mentioned above, the court found that Leyonhjelm could not rely on the defence of qualified privilege or justification for his statements about Hanson-Young, ruling that he did not have a reasonable basis to believe the substance of his defamatory statements and therefore could not establish the defence of justification, deciding:

Had I accepted the applicant’s account of what she said, the respondent’s justification defence would still fail. That is because the words the applicant claimed to have used could not, on any reasonable view, be tantamount to a claim that “all men are rapists”. Further, on any reasonable view, the first set of words attributed to the applicant by Senator Hinch (“women would not need protection if men weren’t rapists or men stopped raping women”) could not be regarded as tantamount to a claim that “all men are rapists”.

This case underscores the complexities of proving the truth of defamatory statements in defamation proceedings, especially when such statements involve interpretations of spoken words in dynamic and contentious settings like parliamentary debates.

The decision highlights the stringent requirements for establishing a defence of justification, including the necessity for clear and convincing evidence that the allegedly defamatory imputations are true.

Bellino v Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd

In Bellino v Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [2019] FCA 1380, Antonio (Tony) Bellino sued Queensland Newspapers for defamation, stating they had made false claims about him that had harmed his reputation.

The allegedly defamatory imputations included that Bellino was the owner of brothels, was a criminal, and fled to Italy as a result of his crimes. However, Queensland Newspapers claimed the defence of justification, citing the imputations as substantially true.

  • Much of the evidence used to support the defence of substantial truth came from Bellino’s own admissions in a book he authored and his testimony during the trial. This included his admissions about the activities at venues he was involved with, such as the Taormina Spaghetti Bar, which doubled as a venue for illegal gambling.
  • The court found the defence of justification was successfully made out by the respondent, supporting the notion that the claims about Bellino’s criminal activities and ownership of illegal businesses were substantially true.

The court dismissed Tony Bellino’s defamation case against Queensland Newspapers and that Bellino must pay costs. They found that the newspaper’s claims about Bellino’s involvement in brothels, illegal gambling, and criminal activities in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley were substantially true.

The court also found that Bellino’s own testimony had the “potential to incriminate him” [113] in illegal activities. Ultimately, the court ruled that Queensland Newspapers had successfully established the defence of justification, as the defamatory imputations were proven to be substantially true.

This case highlights the complexities of defamation law, particularly around the defence of justification. It underscores the importance of the plaintiff’s character and past activities in shaping the outcome of defamation proceedings, especially when the defendant can substantiate claims with substantial truth.

Roberts-Smith v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Limited (No 41)

In Roberts-Smith v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Limited (No 41) [2023] FCA 555, the plaintiff, Mr Ben Roberts-Smith, a decorated Australian soldier, claimed that the series of articles published by the defendant, Fairfax Media Publications Pty Limited, included false claims of several war crimes he had supposedly committed while fighting in Afghanistan.

In response, Fairfax Media claimed the defence of justification and contextual truth, stating the imputations were largely true.

  1. Substantial Truth Established – The court found substantial truth in several serious allegations, including those relating to Roberts-Smith’s actions in Afghanistan that purportedly involved unlawful killings and misconduct. Notably, the court established the substantial truth of the alleged murders at Whiskey 108 and other locations where Roberts-Smith was implicated in the killing of detained Afghans.
  2. Other Defences – Contextual truth was also pleaded, which pertains to other true facts presented in the articles that would prevent further harm to Roberts-Smith’s reputation even if some allegations were not proven true.

The court found that Fairfax had successfully established the defence of justification, as the majority of the defamatory imputations about Roberts-Smith’s involvement in war crimes, bullying, and domestic violence were proven to be substantially true. As a result, the court made a judgment for the defendant.

This case underscores the critical role of substantial truth in defamation defences, particularly when serious allegations against public figures are involved. The ruling reflects the court’s extensive consideration of witness credibility, documentary evidence, and the detailed examination of events and operations involving Roberts-Smith during his military service.

TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd v Pahuja

In the initial case, TCN Channel Nine News was found to have defamed the plaintiff, Mr Pahuja, by ‘exposing’ him for running a “cruel immigration scam”. The trial judge withdrew from the jury the contextual truth defence and the substantial truth defence in relation to imputations (a), (h) and (j), finding that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the imputations.

Upon appeal to the NSWCA in TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd v Pahuja [2019] NSWCA 166, the court decided that:

  1. The broadcast in question alleged that Pahuja was involved in facilitating an immigration scam where individuals paid large sums for Australian visas.
  2. The trial initially concluded with a jury finding that some defamatory imputations about Pahuja were conveyed by the broadcast.
  3. The appellants (Channel Nine and others) argued that their defence of substantial truth was incorrectly withdrawn from the jury concerning specific imputations that Pahuja was involved in the scam.
  4. The Court of Appeal examined whether there was sufficient evidence to present this defence to the jury, focusing on recorded conversations that suggested Pahuja’s involvement with an immigration agent known for dubious practices.
  5. The Court found that there was enough evidence for the substantial truth defence to be considered by a jury, particularly regarding Pahuja’s knowledge and involvement in the immigration scam.
  6. It was noted that the evidence could suggest that Pahuja had more than incidental involvement in the alleged scam, contradicting his trial testimony, which could be interpreted as misleading or false.

This decision underscores the importance of a properly presented substantial truth defence in defamation cases, particularly when the evidence might support multiple interpretations of the defendant’s involvement in the alleged actions. The case also illustrates the appellate court’s role in ensuring that such defences are appropriately considered at trial.

Hutley v Cosco

In the initial case, the Supreme Court of New South Wales ordered Sydney lawyer Ms Hutley to pay her neighbour Mr Cosco $360,000 in damages, including interest, for defaming him. Mr Cosco sued the defendant due to an episode of A Current Affair in 2016, where Ms Hutley accused Mr Cosco of “harassing” her family and putting their lives in danger.

Upon appeal to the NSWCA in Hutley v Cosco [2021] NSWCA 17, the Court said:

  1. Substantial Truth of Plaintiff’s Imputations – The court found substantial truth in several imputations regarding Cosco’s risky and aggressive actions during the construction dispute. Specific findings included Cosco’s act of blocking Hutley’s kitchen vent with flammable foam, posing a significant risk and constituting bullying.
  2. Contextual Truth – The appeal argued and the court considered that other true contextual imputations by Hutley about Cosco’s behaviour mitigated the defamatory impact of her statements.
  3. Outcome – The appeal was upheld, leading to the setting aside of the original defamation award. This included a reversal on many of the original findings regarding the truth of the statements and the implications for Cosco’s reputation.

Hutley established that “four of the five imputations pleaded by the plaintiff were found to be substantially true, as well as part of the fifth imputation”.

This case illustrates the complexities of defamation law, particularly around the defences of substantial and contextual truth. The appeal decision emphasised the need for clear evidence of the truth of defamatory statements and considered the broader context of the alleged defamation, showing how additional truths asserted by the defendant can mitigate the impact of harmful imputations.

Courtney v Cayman News Service Ltd & Ors

In Courtney v Cayman News Service Ltd & Ors [2022] QSC 37, Courtney, a former corporate lawyer, was convicted in the Cayman Islands in 2015 of causing grievous bodily harm and reckless driving after his car collided with an elderly couple, whom he then fled the scene. The allegedly defamatory imputations included that he:

  1. is a hit-and-run driver.
  2. drove away from the scene of an accident.
  3. committed the criminal offence in the Cayman Islands of leaving the scene of an accident.
  4. actively took steps to avoid detection by the police; and
  5. attempted to pervert the course of justice.

The defendants used the defence of justification, arguing that the published statements were substantially true based on the evidence from Courtney’s criminal proceedings and subsequent legal consequences in the Cayman Islands.

  1. Substantial Truth – The court considered whether the imputations that Courtney was a “hit-and-run driver” and other associated claims were substantially true. The evidence showed that Courtney had indeed been involved in the incident, had left the scene, and had been convicted for his actions, which provided a factual basis for the articles.
  2. Application of the Defence – The defendants argued that the articles were accurate summaries of the court proceedings, which could justify the publications under the defence of substantial truth. The court analysed the context in which the articles were written, noting they were reports of ongoing legal proceedings and convictions, which is a crucial factor in evaluating the defence of justification.
  3. Outcome of the Defence – The decision on the application for summary judgment by the plaintiff against the defendants was dismissed, indicating that the defendants had a real prospect of successfully defending the defamation claim based on the substantial truth of the reported facts.

The Supreme Court of Queensland rejected Simon Courtney’s application for summary judgment in his defamation lawsuit against several news outlets. The court found that the news outlets had numerous available defences, including the defence of justification, which could potentially succeed at trial.

This case highlights the complexity of the defence of justification in defamation, particularly when the defamatory statements are closely tied to the subject’s criminal conduct and legal proceedings. The court emphasised the importance of the factual accuracy of the statements made in publications and their basis in previously established legal findings.

Wagner & Ors v Harbour Radio Pty Ltd & Ors

In Wagner & Ors v Harbour Radio Pty Ltd & Ors [2018] QSC 201, the plaintiffs sued the defendants for a series of 32 publications that were made over radio broadcasts, that were allegedly defamatory.

The imputations included that the plaintiffs were involved in the cover-up of deaths of people. The defendants attempted to claim the defence of justification, stating that the publications were substantially true.

The defendants, including Jones, relied on several defences, including the defences of truth (justification), contextual truth, and fair report of proceedings of public concern.

  1. Substantial Truth – The court had to determine if the defamatory imputations that the Wagners were responsible for the deaths in the Grantham flood and had orchestrated a cover-up to protect their financial interests, were substantially true. The defendants argued that the contextual imputations—that the plaintiffs conducted business with disregard for laws and community impact—were true and relevant to the case.
  2. Contextual Truth – This defence requires that any additional true imputations prevent the allegedly defamatory imputations from further harming the plaintiff’s reputation. The defendants claimed that the Wagners’ business practices generally harmed the community, which was contextually true and thus mitigated the defamation.
  3. Fair Report – The defence of fair report was based on whether the broadcasts were fair reports of public proceedings, specifically the official inquiries into the Grantham floods, which did not find conclusive evidence implicating the Wagner’s quarry in worsening the flood’s impact.

The court found that the defendants had published defamatory material about the plaintiffs and that the defence of justification did not apply. The court awarded damages to the plaintiffs and granted injunctions against the defendants, preventing them from further publishing the defamatory material.

This case highlights the challenges involved in using the defence of justification in defamation, particularly when public figures and complex issues like public safety and corporate responsibility are involved. It also shows the high standards that are required to prove the truth of serious allegations in defamation cases.

Defence of Justification – FAQ

This FAQ section explores critical aspects of the defence of justification in defamation law, focusing on its application and requirements.

Through detailed questions and answers, it offers insights into how truthfulness is evaluated in legal settings and the impact of proving substantial truth on defamation cases.

What is the defence of justification (truth)?

The defence of justification, also known as the defence of truth, is a legal argument used in defamation cases where the defendant claims that the defamatory statements they made are substantially true. Under Section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005 (Qld), proving this defence effectively negates the defamation claim, as the law does not consider true statements to be defamatory.

Can you use the truth as a defence against defamation?

Yes, the truth can be used as a defence against defamation. This defence is formally known as justification. If the defendant can demonstrate that the defamatory imputations are substantially true, then this is a complete defence to a defamation claim. The key is proving the essential truth of the statements in question.

How do you prove truth in a defamation case?

To prove truth in a defamation case, the defendant must establish that every “material” part of the defamatory imputation is true. This means focusing on the substance and essence of the claims rather than minute details. Courts typically require evidence that supports the main facts of the defamatory statement, allowing for minor inaccuracies as long as they do not affect the overall truthfulness of the core allegations.

Defamation vs. Freedom of speech: does truth matter?

In the balance between defamation and freedom of speech, truth plays a crucial role. Truthful statements are protected under freedom of speech principles, meaning that if a statement can be proven true, it is not considered defamatory, regardless of its impact. This protection underscores the importance of truth in maintaining the integrity of free speech while protecting individuals from false and damaging assertions.

When is something “substantially true” in defamation law?

Something is “substantially true” in defamation law when it is true in essence or not materially different from the truth. This legal standard allows for minor errors in detail, focusing instead on whether the overall defamatory “sting” or essence of the statement is true. The truth must capture the main facts that contribute to the defamatory nature of the statement but does not require absolute accuracy in every aspect.

What happens if only part of my statement is true in a defamation case?

If only part of your statement is true in a defamation case, you may still rely on the defence of justification if the true parts represent the core or “sting” of the defamation. The untrue parts must not alter the fundamental nature of what was claimed. However, if the untrue portions materially affect the truthfulness of the core allegations, the defence of justification might fail, and the statement could be deemed defamatory. Courts will assess whether the substantial truth of the allegations is upheld despite the inaccuracies.

What does “substantial truth” mean in defamation law?

In defamation law, “substantial truth” means that the essence or main substance of the defamatory statements is true. The statements do not have to be accurate in every detail but must accurately convey the overall import or seriousness of the allegations.

Is the defence of justification always effective in defamation cases?

The defence of justification is effective only if the defendant can prove that the defamatory imputations are substantially true. If the core of the defamatory statement is proven true, the defence generally holds, but if significant parts are false, the defence may fail.

How detailed must the defence of justification be in court?

In presenting a defence of justification, defendants must provide specific details that directly address the accusations in question. The defence must outline the factual basis for claiming that the statements are true, ensuring that the court understands the justification for each defamatory imputation.

What role do errors play in the defence of justification?

Errors in detail are tolerated in the defence of justification as long as they do not affect the truth of the core, or “sting,” of the defamation. The defence can still succeed if minor inaccuracies do not alter the substance of what was claimed.

Can a defendant be partially truthful and still succeed in a justification defence?

A defendant can succeed in a justification defence even if some details are inaccurate, provided that the substantial truth of the defamatory sting is proven. The essence of the allegations must be true, even if some peripheral details are not.

What impact does the defence of justification have on public figures?

For public figures, the defence of justification can be particularly significant as it balances their public reputation against the freedom of speech. Proving the substantial truth of defamatory statements about public figures can uphold journalistic integrity and the public’s right to be informed.

How does the court determine if a statement is “substantially true”?

Courts look at whether the essence or the most serious aspect of the accusations is true, focusing on the importance and seriousness of the allegations. The assessment involves considering the context and implications of the defamatory statements to determine if they reflect the reality substantially.

What evidence is typically required to prove substantial truth?

Evidence required to prove substantial truth includes witness testimonies, documents, and other tangible proof that supports the essence of the defamatory statements. The evidence must convincingly demonstrate that the core allegations are true.

How does the concept of “material difference” factor into proving substantial truth?

The concept of “material difference” factors into proving substantial truth by assessing whether deviations from the exact truth materially affect the defamation’s essence. If inaccuracies do not significantly alter the defamatory sting, the defence can still be upheld.

What are the consequences if a court finds that a statement is not substantially true?

If a court finds that a statement is not substantially true, the defence of justification fails, and the defendant may be liable for defamation. This can result in damages awarded to the plaintiff for harm caused by the false statements.

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