13 June 2018
On Monday 26 March 2012, judgment was handed down in the first ever Twitter libel trial in England. Mr Justice Bean awarded the New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns £90,000 in a libel claim brought primarily on a tweet published by a former Indian cricket official, which alleged that Mr Cairns was involved in match-fixing. That an award of this level was made shows clearly that the High Court will treat libels published on social media with as much gravity as those in the traditional press. Background On 5th January 2010 the former Chairman of the cricket Indian Premier League ('IPL'), Lalit Modi, published the following tweet: “Chris Cairns removed from the IPL auction list due to his past record in match fixing. This was done by the Governing Council today.” Mr Modi followed up this tweet with comments to an online cricket website, which repeated his allegation of match fixing. Chris Cairns, a famous New Zealand cricketer who had previously been hired to captain an IPL cricket team, brought defamation proceedings against Mr Modi in England. As a professional cricketer, the allegation of match fixing went to the heart of his professional integrity and reputation. Despite neither Mr Cairns nor Mr Modi being English, the fact that Mr Cairns went to school and played county cricket in England and Mr Modi also lived in the country, meant the English court was confident in accepting jurisdiction. Defence Mr Modi attempted to defend Mr Cairns' claim at trial with a 'justification' defence – that the truth of what Mr Modi had alleged should protect him from liability. At trial, Mr Modi's barrister embarked on a scathing attack on Mr Cairns' character, accusing Chris Cairns of being a liar 24 times in his closing statement to the Mr Justice Bean. This did not play out well. The Defendant was found to have been unable to prove the truth of his allegation or even show any grounds for suspicion that Mr Cairns was involved in match-fixing. In Mr Justice Bean's judgment it was held that the use of the justification defence to launch a further attack on Mr Cairns' reputation was an abuse of the legal protection that comments made in court are given ('privilege'), and accordingly increased the damages payable by Mr Modi from £75,000 to £90,000. An example of this abuse of privilege highlighted by Mr Justice Bean is below (taken from Mr Modi's barrister's closing statement): “In our submission [Chris Cairns' match-fixing] was nothing short of a diabolical scheme that involved blackmailing young players of ability and integrity into match-fixing when that was the last thing they wanted to do. … So they were prisoners. They were being abused. There was a breach of trust by the captain and the vice-captain. They were like children in an orphans' home who, abused by everyone around them, can trust no one, can report to no one.” Thoughts Cairns v Modi should be taken as a stark warning of the scale at which civil liability can be incurred by anyone attacking a reputation online. The case also demonstrates that the English courts will regard allegations made on social media like Twitter with as much gravity as those made in the British press. The extent that Mr Modi and his barrister's conduct in court aggravated the damages is also a lesson for defendants, that careful consideration should be given before taking an overly aggresive strategy in court.