Science writer wins court battle

 

LEADING BRITISH judges who found in favour yesterday of a science writer who alleged that chiropractors delivered “bogus” treatments have ruled that scientific disputes should not be dealt with by the courts.

In their ruling, three Appeals Court judges ruled that Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an opinion piece for the Guardianin 2008, will be able to defend his remarks as fair comment when the case goes to court.

The decision by the judges to overrule an original high court judgment in favour of the chiropractors’ body was last night celebrated as a major victory by libel campaigners.

The high court judgment, by Mr Justice Eady, provoked a campaign, “Sense About Science”, led by scientists and celebrities such as Stephen Fry, all of whom warned that scientific debate would be stifled if Singh lost.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Eady had said Singh’s use of the word “bogus” implied chiropractors deliberately endorsed treatments they knew to be questionable.

Singh’s words were fact, not opinion, which would prevent him from using a fair comment defence.

A defendant who has to justify a statement of fact would have to prove the statement was true, rather than a statement of honestly held opinion.

British courts have seen a sharp rise in the number of libel actions by medical and drugs companies against those who question their products.

The Royal Institution, the world’s oldest research body, welcomed the ruling, while the lobby group “Coalition for Libel Reform” said the Singh case had “brought out of the woodwork the fact that so many other discussions are being killed, from discussions of cardiology to human rights to medicines”.

Singh described yesterday’s ruling as “brilliant”, though it had so far cost him £200,000 “just to define the meaning of a few words.After two years of battling in this libel case, at last we’ve got a good decision.

“The Court of Appeal’s made a very wise decision, but it just shouldn’t be so horrendously expensive for a journalist or an academic journal or a scientist to defend what they mean.

“That’s why people back off from saying what they really mean,” he added.