Picture: Pandit Dr Raj Sharma (circled), courtesy of NCHT UK http://www.nchtuk.org/
A prominent member of the British Hindu community has been awarded £45,000 in damages over two defamatory emails circulated by a Hindu priest.
Satish Sharma, general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, was awarded the damages for "the poison of the libel that had been circulated against him" by Pandit Dr Raj Sharma (no relation).
The offending emails, dated 27 and 29 April 2013, were sent to a significant number of high-profile members of the British Hindu community, including trustees of the NCHT UK, 28 UK Hindu Temples, MPs and members of the House of Lords, including Lord Dholakia.
In his ruling, seen by Press Gazette, Judge Moloney QC in the High Court spoke of the important principle of “percolation”, the way in which emails spread far beyond their initial recipients.
He said this phenomenon meant “the ripples spread out more widely across the pond”.
Dr Sharma, described by the judge as a “well-known priest”, gave expert evidence at the funeral pyre judicial review, represented Hindus during Remembrance Sunday Ceremony in 2011, and was a regular guest on the BBC’s Sunday morning debate show, The Big Questions.
He alleged the claimant had obtained funds from criminal activities, implying he was the “business partner” of a relative who had been convicted of fraud.
The offending emails were published following a dispute arising from the reorganisation of the NCHT UK executive in 2012, which saw the appointment of the claimant and removal of the defendant as general secretary.
A second email sent to “a total of at least 36 prominent people and bodies” made further allegations about Sharma’s conduct.
After receiving a copy of a second defamatory email, Sharma took steps to correct the false allegations. He was especially concerned about clearing the connection made between him and his convicted relative, compelling him to send an email to some of the original recipients. He also offered his resignation, but this was not accepted.
The judge considered this had had a “moderate mitigating effect”, but the corrective statement was only sent to some of the recipients of the original libels by Dr Sharma.
A separate email from a community member months later quoted parts of the original offending emails. The judge said the corrective statement “did not succeed in completely neutralising the effects of the libel".
Moloney said Dr Sharma’s words were “allegations of the utmost severity” conveying a meaning, by suggestion and inference – “strong grounds to suspect Satish Sharma of guilt of these crimes, but not that he is definitely guilty of them".
The judge said an important factor was that the defendant had signed the defamatory emails in his capacity as secretary of the charity, as he purported to be.
Moreover, his status as a “a respected leader of the Hindu community” would have made his allegations “more likely to be believed than if they came from someone with no weight or reputation of their own". This contributing factor increased the “severity of the libels".
Moloney said an aggravating factor was that the defendant had simply ignored the case against him, failing to apologise or withdraw his allegations after requests to do so.
However, the defendant did not take further “aggravating steps” such as “defending the case on its merits”, “alleging his words are true”, or “hiring an aggressive barrister to humiliate Mr Sharma".
He said: “Therefore, there is a moderate aggravating factor in the form of the failure to apologise and the slightly contemptuous failure to engage with the litigation at all.”
In his ruling the judge said that as a consequence of the publications Sharma had “suffered considerable distress". He described the claimant as “a quiet, dignified man, who appears to have gained, perhaps from his deep religious and philosophical convictions, the ability to deal calmly and proportionately with bad situations such as the present one".
He said: “It is necessary, if this insidious internet libel is to be put to rest, for the claimant to receive a substantial award of damages that will make it clear in public that these are words that ought never to have been published and are, consequently, deserving of a substantial award of damages.”
Sharma’s solicitor, libel and privacy lawyer Simon Smith, said: “The award is an important reminder that the sending of emails or the posting of messages to social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be just as defamatory to a person’s reputation as, or even more than, publication in traditional media such as books and newspapers.
"Although always turning upon the specific circumstances, the courts are quite prepared to award significant damages to protect a reputation that has been harmed.”
The defendant did not appear and was not represented at the hearing.
Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist and defendant in His Holiness v Singh, he tweets @singhtwo2