Adjudicating matters of doctrine – or possibly not

In HH Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj v Eastern Media Group & Anor [2010] EWHC 1294 (QB) (17 May 2010) the claimant sought damages for libel. His complaint, in short, was that a newspaper article had accused him of being the leader of a cult and an impostor who had disturbed the peace in the Sikh community of High Wycombe, of promoting blasphemy and the sexual exploitation of women, of producing counterfeit trust deeds to remove the trustees and management committee of a gurdwara and, generally, of actions detrimental to the Sikh community.

For the detail you can refer to Eady J’s judgment on BAILII and for a more general discussion to an earlier guest post by Russell Sandberg. For the present purposes, suffice it to say that Eady J stayed the action. He accepted the submission of Mark Hill QC, for the newspaper group, that the disputed matters were “within the territory of Sikh doctrine and practice, which is non-justiciable” (paragraph 35).

More recently, in the related case of Khaira & Ors v Shergill & Ors [2012] EWCA Civ 983 (17 July 2012) Mummery LJ said this at paragraphs 70 and 71:

“First, non-justiciability is a salutary principle of judicial self-restraint. It ensures that judges do not overreach themselves and that they abstain from deciding questions that are neither appropriate for, nor capable of decision by, judicial method. Judges are not capable of understanding and deciding everything and it is not their function to do so. Judges are not omniscient. The courts they sit in are courts of law. There are matters on which a court is not competent to speak with authority, because of the limitations inherent in the nature of the judicial process, and therefore should not speak. That is so where the questions are not matters of law at all, such as subjective inward matters incapable of proof by direct evidence or by inference.

“Secondly, the court in this case is being asked to pronounce on matters of religious doctrine and practice … How can the court possibly decide that kind of question with any degree of confidence or credibility?”

And there, one might have thought, the matter might rest – but yesterday Owen Bowcott reported on The Guardian website that Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. Mr Singh’s solicitor, Luke Patel, is quoted as follows:

“His succession is a factual issue, not a religious issue. The highest court in India has given a judgment to say that his is the true succession. If the courts decline to look at this it would be saying that they are not interested in the administration of any English charities [with a religious link]. That would be wrong. This could apply to all sorts of other organisations: mosques, synagogues or temples.”

Watch this space.