British Chiropractic Association drops defamation claim against Simon Singh

Mike Dodd,Press Association
Thursday 15 April 2010 12:33 BST

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has admitted defeat in its defamation battle with science writer Simon Singh.

The BCA yesterday served notice of discontinuance of its action against Dr Singh.

The move follows the Court of Appeal decision on April 1 to overturn Mr Justice Eady's finding at first instance that an article in which Dr Singh said the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments" was a statement of fact.

This meant that Dr Singh would not be able to use the fair comment defence in the libel action.

But the Court of Appeal held that what Dr Singh had written was a statement of opinion which was backed by reasons.

It also made clear its view that the courts were not the forum for settling scientific disputes.

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, giving the judgment, said the court adopted the comment of Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, who had said in Underwager v Salter, a libel action over a scientific controversy, that plaintiffs "cannot, by simply filing suit and crying 'character assassination!', silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs' interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation ... More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models - not larger awards of damages - mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us".

Dr Singh's article had appeared on a page marked "Comment and Debate" in The Guardian in April 2008.

In it, he criticised chiropractic and the BCA's claims that its members could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying "even though there is not a jot of evidence".

He had added: "This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."

The case became a cause celebre for campaigners for reform of the libel law after Mr Justice Eady, dealing at first instance with issues of meaning and whether the words were fact or comment, held that they were defamatory - the "plainest allegation of dishonesty" - and amounted to a verifiable statement of fact.

Solicitor Robert Dougans, of law firm Bryan Cave, which represented Dr Singh, said: "To have won this case for Simon is the proudest moment of my career, but if we had the libel laws we ought to have I would never have met Simon at all.

"Until we have a proper public interest defence scientists and writers are going to have to carry on making the unenviable choice of either shying away from hard-hitting debate, or paying through the nose for the privilege of defending it.

He said the only issue which remained to be settled was the amount of his costs Dr Singh would be able to recover from the BCA, and how much he would have to pay himself.

It is believed that Dr Singh's costs amount to some £200,000.

"However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about £20,000. This - and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover - is the price he has paid for writing an article criticising the BCA for making claims the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled can no longer be made," Mr Dougans said.

"In the game of libel, even winning is costly and stressful."

Ely Place Chambers, the chamber of William McCormick QC, one of two barristers who represented Dr Singh, said in a statement that the BCA had ended its "ill-fated" claim.

It added: "Dr Singh's predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper (to which the BCA never directed any complaint) was seen as a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate."

The BCA said in a statement that it decided to discontinue after careful consideration of its position in the light of the Court of Appeal judgment.

It said Mr Justice Eady, which it described as "the UK's most experienced defamation judge" had agreed with its approach, but that the Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, had taken "a very different view of the article".

The BCA said that while "it still considers that the article was defamatory", the decision provided Dr Singh with a defence such that it now took the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.

The statement added: "As those who have followed the publicity surrounding this case will know, Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.

"The BCA has considered seeking leave to take this matter to the Supreme Court and has been advised there are strong grounds for appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment.

"However, while it was right to bring this claim at the outset, the BCA now feels that the time is right for the matter to draw to a close."

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