You win & yet you don’t: The case of one-farthing court verdicts

Libel is one of the most elusive of laws It is certainly strong, since its deterrent effect clearly came in the way of so many women speaking out against their abusers, until given strength by the #MeToo movement. Even now, former minister MJ Akbar seems to count on libel laws coming to his defence. His suit against journalist Priya Ramani, with 97 lawyers named on his side (only six will actually appear), seems clearly designed to intimidate both Ramani and other women who might want to file charges. *Libel is a criminal offence* in India and Ramani could conceivably face a jail term. Libel cases are fought at two levels in the actual courts and in the arena of public opinion. The damage caused to the plaintiff in public opinion is usually the reason given for filing the case and managing public opinion about the case can matter as much as the actual legal arguments — or even more, since this is where things can swiftly turn against the plaintiffs. Oscar Wilde offers a famous example of this. The Marquess of Queensbury, the furious father of Wilde’s male lover, could have taken the complicated route of trying to assemble evidence of his contravening the laws of that time against homosexuality. Instead, he simply accused Wilde of the crime and waited to be sued for libel. Wilde’s friends counselled against falling into this trap but Wilde, perhaps overconfident of his public standing, filed a libel claim against the Marquess, and rapidly found public opinion turning against him. The case gave his opponents the chance to air allegations against him, even without clear evidence, but just the public statements were damaging enough. Wilde withdrew the case, but it was too late and his action turned awfully against him, resulting in his arrest and conviction. Wilde could still have *won his case, simply due to lack of evidence* but he might have feared a particular kind of verdict that had evolved in British courts precisely for such situations.

Awarding a farthing damages signalled that a case was frivolous and should not have been brought. It was sometimes used when the subject of the case was somehow seen as improper (for example, horse racing), even if legal requirements meant it had to be met. The earliest report of such a case from 1874 and deals with an Irish politician offended by a caricature printed of him. But as the writer noted, public men ought to look for treatment that cannot always be very gentle, that it is for the public interest, as well as amusement, that there should be freedom even for moderate satire. The caricature was offensive, since it was meant to be, so the politician won, but the one farthing damage emphasised the silliness of the suit. Another type of one-farthing case involved breach of promises to marry. In 1887, one bought by a man against a woman who had promised to marry him, but then suspected he was after her money. The jury acknowledged her promise, but also that she had reason to be suspicious, so a farthing was all he deserved. A rather saddercase in 1920 involved a case filed by a lady against a man who had proposed to her but changed his mind after being severely injured in the war. The jury clearly felt she should have left him alone, so left her with a farthing, and no marriage. Not all these cases were inconsequential. One of the most famous, in 1877, pitted the artist James Whistler against the critic John Ruskin. The latter had attacked Whistler’s modern style as flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face. The suit Whistler filed turned on the question of what constituted art, a matter that the jury acknowledged was important, but rather beyond their ability to decide. The jury found for Whistler, affirming that *aesthetic judgements could not be rigidly defined* Ruskin was so devastated that he withdrew from public life and did not publish criticism again. But by awarding just one farthing damages to Whistler, the jury signalled that legal courts were not the place to decide artistic issues. Whistler had won, but was financially ruined by the legal costs, an example of how libel matters rarely end well. In 1909, a case brought against the Cadbury chocolate makers had *important implications for corporate image and responsibility* The Cadbury family had always emphasised a moral approach to business, stemming from their Quaker faith. So, it was a real shock when the Standard newspaper charged them with hypocrisy for sourcing cacao beans from the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome where they had been grown with slave labour. Cadbury had been aware this was an issue but felt impelled to engage with the Portuguese as buyers and persuade them to change their policies from within. The Standard was a right-wing paper, whose real issue with the Cadburys was their opposition to British colonial policy, so the company felt they could *file a case for libel* Yet as they realised in court, whatever their intent, public opinion felt the company should appear to follow the morals it preached. They won, but the one-farthing damages signalled the company had fallen short, and they duly stopped buying the beans. This British practice was picked up in other parts of their Empire, but with occasional changes. In 1933, one-farthing verdict in Sydney ran into problems because farthings weren’t used in Australia. Finally, the defendant managed to find some with a coin collector’s company, imported from the UK for the purpose of trade. In India, several cases were reported from the early decades of the 20th century involving one-rupee verdicts — and one that resulted in damages of just one pie! These cases generally involved squabbles between litigants that the courts clearly felt should not have resulted in cases. In one case, from 1906, the judge seems to have been annoyed because the case stemmed from the handwriting of one of the defendants which was so extremely illegible as not to make the initials easy reading, leading to the misunderstanding. Another case involved a train passenger whose trip from Bombay to Nadiad was, literally, derailed when his carriage was decoupled at Baroda, to be sent elsewhere. The passenger pleaded that he had not known this was coming, and he lost his time and luggage in the process. The railway retorted that the change had been adequately publicised, and the fault was the passenger’s. Finding himself unable — or just bored — to decide, the judge just sent the passenger home with a rupee in damages. Over time, such *one-coin cases have mostly vanished* perhaps linked to the disappearance of juries. Judges seem more amenable to awarding larger damages, or none at all, but not this in-between approach. And yet there is a strain of common sense in the one-coin verdicts that seems more likely to come from the laymen of the jury, rather than experts in law. Jury members have to suspend their lives to hear a case, and do not get paid for it (unlike lawyers and judges). So they might be less tolerant of cases that just waste time and effort, or where the common-sense verdict is opposed to the legal one.

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