An Indian Sikh holy man who is suing a journalist in the British courts for libel has been ordered to put up quarter of million pounds in security costs in order to pursue the case further.
Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj, the leader of a controversial sect of Sikhs in the Punjab, has been seeking damages from Slough-based freelance journalist Hardeep Singh for more than four years.
The dispute centres around an article published in the Sikh Times in August 2007 in which Mr Singh alleged that Mr Maharaj, as head of the Nirmal Kutia Johal sect, was an imposter and a cult leader.
Freedom of speech campaigners have criticised the legal action as a prime example of libel tourism whereby foreign nationals who have never travelled to the country use British courts to pursue damages.
Mr Maharaj’s lawyers argued that the British courts are the correct place to pursue the claims because the article was published and read in the UK. Next month the Coalition Government is set to introduce a Libel Reform Bill which campaigners hope will tackle the issue of libel tourism.
The case against Mr Singh was struck out by the High Court last year but Mr Maharaj was given permission to appeal with a hearing set for later this month.
However lawyers acting on behalf of Mr Maharaj were forced to write to the court earlier this week to say that they had received no recent instruction from the Sikh leader suggesting that he has now in fact abandoned his claim.
This morning the court ordered him to put up £250,000 within the next two weeks as security or risk having the case thrown out entirely. There was no-one present from Mr Maharaj’s team in court.
For Mr Singh, who has had to re-mortgage his own house in order to fight the libel claim, the move represents a potential victory after more than four years of legal battles.
Speaking after today’s hearing, the 33-year-old reporter called on the Government to bring in constructive libel reform.
“It seems that the minute His Holiness has been required to make any financial commitment to these proceedings, he has decided to simply throw in the towel,” he said. “This behaviour is demonstrative of how our libel laws have become the plaything of rich foreign nationals who know full well that the inherent threat of financial ruin can be used to intimidate and stifle the rights of individuals to speak freely on matters of public interest.”
Until late last year Mr Singh had to pay his own legal bills. He is now represented by the law firm Carter Ruck under a “no win no fee” basis. But even if the case is eventually dropped, he now faces the lengthy prospect of legal battles in India to recoup his costs.
“The irony of the situation though is that even now, with the Appeal looking very much over, I have the stark prospect of seeking to recover my costs in India, which may take another 6-7 years of my life,” he said. “This will add more to the already huge expense of fighting this case, all for my freedom of speech, for writing something in the public interest about someone who's actions are wholly inconsistent with true Sikh values.”
Nick Collins, from Leeds based solicitors Ford and Warren, represents Mr Maharaj. When contacted by The Independent this afternoon Mr Collins said he still had not heard from his client but defended his firm’s decision to pursue the original claim.
“This was never a case of libel tourism,” he said. “The article was published in England by an author who resides in England and was read by people in England. It was therefore appropriate for us to pursue this case in the English courts.”