The libel claim brought by His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh ji Maharaj against the Sikh Times and one of its journalists, Hardeep Singh appears to have been abandoned by the claimant. The action concerns an article published on 23 August 2007. On 17 May 2010 Mr Justice Eady stayed the action on the ground that it would involve an illegitimate inquiry into issues of religious doctrine (HH Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj v Eastern Media Group & Anor  EWHC 1294 (QB)). The UK Human Rights Blog had a comment about this decision at the time and Jack of Kent had a blogpost dealing with the case (and setting out the article complained of).
However, on 22 October 2010, His Holiness was granted permission to appeal by Lady Justice Smith (see the news story here) – not because it was argued that the courts could inquire into religious doctrine but on the limited basis that there are arguable claims that parts of the article that do not tread on the forbidden area of doctrinal dispute. The appeal was listed for 28 February or 1 March 2011 before the Master of the Rolls, Sedley and Hooper LJJ. An application was then made for security for the costs of the appeal.
This application was due to be heard on 1 February 2011 by Sedley and Pitchford LJJ. However, on 31 January 2011, the solicitors acting for His Holiness wrote to the Court stating that they were “without instructions” in relation to both the application and the appeal and stating that they were in the process of making an application to come off the record.
It appears that the appeal has been abandoned and that, as a result, the order for a stay remains. The action has been controversial because His Holiness is a wealthy Indian national who has never visited the United Kingdom. As a result, it was argued that he was a “libel tourist” (by, for example, the demonstrators pictured at the beginning of this post). Although Hardeep Singh was ultimately represented by Carter-Ruck on a defendant’s CFA, the action was obviously a source of great stress and anxiety for him as he explained in an interview on the “Index on Censorship” website.
The concerns of Hardeep Singh about facing this libel action – without the backing of the “Sikh Times” which settled at an early stage – are entirely understandable. There is an obvious need for swift and early disposal of unmeritorious libel actions – and one which deal with issues of religious doctrine. Another action giving rise to such issues – also involving disputes concerning His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh ji Maharaj – was recently stayed by the High Court (see Shergill v Purewal  EWHC 3610 (QB) – and our Case Comment).
But the characterisation of His Holiness as a “libel tourist” is not straighforward. Although he lives abroad, the defendant newspaper and journalist were both based in the United Kingdom. As we understand the position, the circulation of the “Sikh Times” is substantially in the United Kingdom and this seems to be the natural forum for any libel action. A claim in India (or elsewhere) based on the circulation of a small number of copies (or publication on the internet) might be open to the accusation of “libel tourism” – an action in England is not. If an individual has an English reputation then it is difficult to see why he or she should not be allowed to vindicate it in the English courts. What was objectionable in this case was not the use of the English courts by a foreign claimant, but the attempt to litigate religious issues in the libel courts.
[Updated] There has not yet been a formal abandonment of the appeal. It has been reported that the Court of Appeal today ordered his Holiness to pay the sum of £250,000 into court as security for costs of the appeal within 14 days or his case will be struck out. There is a news item about the application on the 5RB Website.