Judge: You can’t sue for libel over reports to the police

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Justice Frank Seepersad. –

POLICE reports are protected from libel and defamation claims by absolute privilege, a High Court judge has ruled, in a novel claim filed by the owner of a security firm against a soldier.

On Thursday, Justice Frank Seepersad held that the doctrine of absolute privilege applied to reports made to the police and used to catalyse criminal investigations.

He said the police often relied on the co-operation of citizens to unearth information. This, he said, was a critical aspect of the criminal justice system and ought not to be fettered.

Seepersad said the need to speak freely as part of any criminal investigation had to override the sanctity of a good reputation, especially now, when crime is now on the upsurge.

“It is imperative that citizens feel empowered to make a report to police in keeping with the mantra: ‘If you see something, say something.’

“Such citizens should feel confident that the report they make to the police will not result in collateral proceedings against them on the basis of libel or defamation,” he said in his oral decision.

Seepersad acknowledged there was a need to do a balancing act to ensure no one’s reputation was arbitrarily abused. But he warned that the police had the power to charge anyone who makes a false report with wasting police time.

This, he said, was the built-in protection in the system. He advised that “anyone who makes reports understands the seriousness of the exercise and there are consequences for making a false report.”

In his lawsuit, Russell Bhikarrie, of Katwaroo Trace, Penal, the owner of the Night Prowlers security firm, alleged that his neighbour, a member of the Defence Force, tarnished his reputation when he made a report to the police in April.

The report claimed the soldier, Jaipersad Beharry, told police Bhikarrie climbed his fence and threw a hog head into his yard. Bhikarrie also made other allegations against his neighbour.

In his defence, Beharry maintained he was not aggressive or hostile to Bhikarrie, but had received several veiled threats and derogatory comments in voice notes on his cellphone. He insisted the report he made to police on April 14 was part of the process of starting an investigation of a crime or trespass to property with a view to either criminal or private prosecution.

He also contended that it was against public policy to prevent anyone from making a police report, and his report was covered by absolute privilege.

Bhikarrie was ordered to pay his neighbour’s costs of $6,300.

He was represented by attorney Jeevan Rampersad. Wendy Ramnath-Panday represented Beharry.