Singh v the British Chiropractic Association

In 2008, the British Chiropractic Association launched a defamation lawsuit against science writer Simon Singh over an op-ed in which he suggested chiropractors lacked evidence for some of their medical claims. Maryam Omidi examines the case.

The case

The British Chiropractic Association unsuccessfully sued science writer Simon Singh over an opinion piece published in the Guardian newspaper in 2008, in which he had suggested chiropractors lacked evidence for their medical claims on treating childhood maladies such as colic and asthma. The BCA filed the lawsuit even though the Guardian offered an apology, a clarification and a right of reply.

In a preliminary hearing, Mr Justice Eady ruled that by using the phrase “[the BCA] happily promotes bogus treatments”, Singh was accusing the association of “thoroughly disreputable conduct”. The judge added that as Singh was stating facts instead of opinion he could not use the defence of “fair comment”. Singh maintained that he was not accusing the association of deliberately promoting sham treatments but simply that their claims were not based on evidence.

In the final ruling, three Appeal Court judges overturned the initial ruling, concluding that Singh’s piece was legally permissible as fair comment. They said: “Accordingly this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the use of chiropractic.”

Author opinion

The Appeal Court judges made the right decision. As Singh’s article was clearly published in the Guardian’s comment pages, it was a statement of opinion rather than fact. Unfortunately for Singh, England's defamation law leans in favour of the claimant. The law is in the process of being overhauled to address precisely such concerns; under the draft bill, Singh would have been able to use the defence of “honest opinion” – an honest statement of opinion on a matter of public interest – to fight his case.

More generally, libel laws should not be used to muzzle genuine criticism or stifle scientific debate. In this particular case, the Guardian gave the BCA the opportunity to respond to Singh’s piece, which it declined. Had the BCA responded by providing evidence to counter Singh’s claims, both parties would have been saved an expensive, two-year legal battle.

- Maryam Omidi

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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