Rex V. Robert Benjamin Wuta-ofei (1947)
LawGlobal Hub Judgment Report – West African Court of Appeal
Criminal LawCriminal Libel—Gold Coast Criminal Code, section 246 (2)-Innuendo–Inadequate consideration of meaning placed by appellant onwords complained of—Jurisdiction.
The following judgment was delivered:
Verity, C.J. This is an appeal from a conviction for libel contrary to section 246 (2) of the Criminal Code, the particulars of the offence being that the appellant published a defamatory libel concerning Stewart Simpson, a Senior Veterinary Officer of the Animal Health Department, Accra, in the form of a newspaper article which contained the following alleged defamatory matter:-
” The Veterinary Officer suggests that the wheels of trucks operated by the Africans should be fitted with rubber, and was bold enough to name a European firm of which to buy the rubber. What is his interest in Shaul and Company to direct Africans to buy from the firm ? This is very significant owing to the fact that European carts approved by Mr. Simpson are not rubber wheeled.”
The Crown alleged that these words implied that the Veterinary Officer had an interest in Shaul and Company and was using his position as Senior Veterinary Officer to attempt to induce persons to deal with this firm.
The appellant did not deny publication of the words but his defence was that these words did not bear the meaning placed upon them by the Crown but were intended to mean, and did mean, no more than that the officer referred to was discriminating against Africans and in favour of Europeans in the course of his official duties, and in this sense, were fair comment on a matter of public interest.
The case was heard before the learned Acting Chief Justice sitting with assessors, and in the course of his summing up the learned trial judge referred at some length to the question of the truth of the alleged suggestion that the officer concerned had an interest in Shaul and Company. Having drawn attention to the fact that it was not suggested in evidence that the officer had such interest and that the appellant had said that he did not believe that the officer had such an interest, the trial Judge proceeded:-
” If therefore you find that the proper meaning of the passage ‘ What is his interest in Shaul and Company to direct Africans to buy from this firm ? ‘ is not merely asking the question but plainly suggesting the answer
that he has some interest, it is open to you to find that one important part is neither true nor believed to be true and therefore its publication cannot be privileged either absolutely or with qualifications.”
He then proceeded to deal with the defence in the following terms:-
” On behalf of the defence evidence was led that the passage complained of does not bear the meaning which the prosecution alleges it does and the accused himself has said in effect that he did not intend any such meaning when he wrote it. He was merely asking the question without suggesting the answer.
” In regard to this I would draw your attention to the actual words used What is his interest in Shaul & Co. ? ‘ The defence submit that the question put in this form, if it implies an answer, implied a negative one while the prosecution argues to the contrary.
” In my view a question put in this form does usually imply an answer and that answer may be affirmative or negative according to its related context and surroundings, and you must consider these in deciding which implication the question makes .. .
” If you come to the conclusion that the passage quoted in the charge bears the implication alleged in the information you should have no difficulty in finding further that it does impute misconduct to a public officer in his office and is defamatory.”
In the course of his judgment the learned trial Judge says:—
“I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the passage complained of taken fairly alleges that Mr. Simpson has an interest in Shaul & Co. and was using his position as Senior Veterinary Officer to attempt to induce persons to deal with the said Shaul & Co.
” I find that it is not true that Mr. Simpson had any interest in Shaul & Co. and the defendant has admitted in evidence that he had no reason for believing that he had any such an interest.”
” I therefore hold that the passage was defamatory in that it imputed misconduct to a public officer in his office . . . “
The only substantial ground of appeal argued is that:-
” The learned trial Judge failed to direct the assessors and himself on the interpretation which the appellant placed upon the words quoted in the information, and his failure so to direct amounts in law to such a misdirection that the verdict should not be allowed to stand.”
Counsel for the appellant cited the judgment of the House of Lords in Dakhyl v. Labouchere (1) in the course of which Lord Atkinson, after referring to the meaning placed by the defendant upon the words alleged to have been defamatory in that case, proceeded:—
” I do not for a moment suggest that the meaning thus put upon the libel by the defendant is its true meaning but I think it would be impossible successfully to contend that it is not reasonably susceptible of that construction, or, to use the words of Lord Esher in Merivale v. Carson (1887), 20 Q.B.D. 279, that it could not be thought by any reasonable man to have that meaning ‘. If that be so, as I think it is, it was the right of the defendant to have it in some form of words distinctly left to the jury to say whether the meaning so put upon the libel by the defendant was in fact the meaning it conveyed to the mind of the ordinary reader.”
It is clearly essential that, where the meaning of the libel is in issue that which is placed upon the words by the defendant must be given consideration, and, where the trial is by jury, it must be put distinctly to them whether that meaning
is the sense in which an ordinary man would understand the words. It was, therefore, in the present case essential that the learned trial Judge should have put this to the assessors and should ultimately have given consideration himSelf to this aspect of the case before him.
We are unable to find either in his summing up or in inis judgment that he at any time put fully to the assessors or considered fully himself the meaning placed upon the libel by the appellant. He confines himself to the distinction between the submissions of the Crown and of the appellant as to the implication of the single question ” What is his interest in Shaul & Co ? ” He at no time put to the assessors or himself considered the meaning placed upon the whole libel by the appellant, that is to say, that this question, taken in its context, did not imply that the officer concerned had in fact an interest in Shaul and Company but that on the contrary, having no such interest, his sole reason for suggesting that the wheels of trucks operated by Africans should be fitted with rubber wheels was to discriminate against them in favour of Europeans to whom he made no such suggestion.
Following Lord Atkinson, we would not suggest that the meaning thus put upon the libel by the appellant is its true meaning, but we do not think that it could be successfully contended that it is not reasonably susceptible of that construction or, in Lord Esher’s words, that it could not be thought by any reasonable man to have that meaning, and we are of the opinion that the question whether in the present case the words used conveyed that meaning to the mind of the ordinary man should have been put to the assessors and finally decided by the trial Judge in his judgment. This the learned Judge failed to do. We are unable to hold, therefore, that the defence received adequate consideration and cannot say that if it had received such consideration the verdict would have been the same. The appeal must therefore be allowed, the conviction quashed, the sentence set aside and a verdict of acquittal be entered. The fine, if paid, must be refunded to the appellant.