Otuo v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Britain, Court of Appeal - Civil Division, March 09, 2017, [2017] EWCA Civ 136

Issuing Organization:Civil Division
Actores:Otuo v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Britain
Resolution Date:March 09, 2017
 
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Case No: A2/2015/1328 and A2/2015/1785

Neutral Citation Number: [2017] EWCA Civ 136

IN THE COURT OF APPEAL (CIVIL DIVISION)

ON APPEAL FROM THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

HH JUDGE PARKES QC sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge

HQ13D03735

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 09/03/2017

Before :

THE CHANCELLOR

LADY JUSTICE GLOSTER

and

LADY JUSTICE SHARP

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Between :

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Frank Otuo in person

Simon Achonu (instructed by Watch Tower Legal Department) for the Respondent

Hearing date: 14 November 2016

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JudgmentLady Justice Sharp:

Introduction

  1. This is an appeal, with the permission of Vos LJ from the order made by HH Judge Parkes QC sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge on 9 March 2015, in which he refused to exercise his discretion pursuant to section 32A of the Limitation Act 1980 to exclude the time limit for bringing this action for slander. The appellant also renews his application for permission to appeal against an Order made by HH Judge Moloney QC on 14 May 2015. At the end of the hearing, we announced that the appeal was allowed, and the renewed application was refused. These are my reasons.

    Background

  2. The appellant in this case, Mr Frank Otuo, brings these proceedings for slander against the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Britain, the representative body of the Jehovah's Witnesses, in respect of an announcement made on the 19 July 2012 at the Wimbledon Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, by Mark Lewis, a local congregation elder. He commenced his action by issuing his claim form on 19 July 2013. The words said to have been spoken are these: ``Frank Otuo is no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses'' (or ``disfellowshipped'' as it is described). The appellant who has represented himself throughout these proceedings, alleges that these words mean by innuendo, that he was remorselessly engaged in one of the following activities: fraud, paedophilia, theft, adultery, fornication, drunkenness.

  3. In its defence to the claim, the respondent asserts amongst other things that claim is not justiciable, that the words are not defamatory of the appellant, and that they were published on an occasion of qualified privilege.

  4. The claim itself is a straightforward one, but its procedural history, which is important to this appeal, is somewhat tangled, and it is necessary to set it out.

  5. The matter came before HH Judge Moloney QC on 5 December 2013 on an application made by the respondent to strike out the claim, on the ground that the words were not defamatory, and the claim was non-justiciable. The judge held that the words complained of were not defamatory in their ordinary and natural meaning, but declined to strike out the innuendo meaning or to find the claim was not justiciable, though he gave liberty to re-apply after service of the reply.

  6. On 19 June 2014, after service of its defence, the respondent made a further application to strike out the claim on the ground that it had been brought outside the primary limitation period of one year which applies to claims of slander by section 4A of the Limitation Act 1980.

  7. Section 4A of the Limitation Act 1980, as amended provides that:

    ``...no such claim [that is, an action for libel or slander] shall be brought after the expiration of one year from the date on which the cause of action accrued.''

  8. On 30 October 2014, Master Leslie determined that issue in favour of the respondent, and struck the claim. He said:

    ``The one year specified by the relevant statute expired at midnight on 18th July 2013. Mr Otuo did know he had to bring his claim within a year. On 29th June 2013, he had had a casual conversation with a friend, who was a lawyer. He thus became aware of the possibility that he had a right of action. ON 19th July 2013, he issued the proceedings...It cannot be that they were issued within the one year, as, in law, days are indivisible. Mr Otuo is an intelligent man, but his suggestion as to what the words of the statute mean is not acceptable. The one year ended at midnight on 18th July 2013, in spite of his ingenious argument.''

  9. The Master awarded the respondent one third of its costs as he took the view, that it could and should have taken the limitation point earlier. He granted the appellant permission to appeal but solely on the question whether the respondent was precluded from relying on the limitation defence by acquiescence and estoppel.

  10. The appellant duly appealed on that issue. He also argued that the Master should have dealt with his application to disapply the primary limitation period made pursuant to section 32A of the Limitation Act 1980, which had been issued on 29 July 2014. On 12 December 2014, his appeal was dismissed by Sir David Eady, sitting as a High Court Judge. We do not have a transcript of the judgment, but it is common ground that it dealt with the issue of law on which permission to appeal had been given, that is, acquiescence, and estoppel, and did not trespass on the other matter determined by the Master, namely whether the claim had been brought within the limitation period or not.

  11. Sir David Eady obviously took the view (correctly) that the appellant's application to disapply the limitation period made before the hearing below, should have been considered by Master Leslie. Accordingly, he directed that this issue should be listed to be heard by a judge. He also ordered the costs order made by Master Leslie be stayed pending the determination of the section 32A application, and that the appellant should pay the respondent's costs of the appeal.

  12. Section 32A of the Limitation Act 1980 provides as follows:

    "(1) If it appears to the court that it would be equitable to allow an action to proceed having regard to the degree to which--

    1. the operation of section 4A of this Act prejudices the plaintiff or any person whom he represents, and

    2. any decision of the court under this subsection would prejudice the defendant or any person whom he represents,

      the court may direct that that section shall not apply to the action or shall not apply to any specified cause of action to which the action relates.

      (2) In acting under this section the court shall have regard to all the circumstances of the case and in particular to--

    3. the length of, and the reasons...

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