Defamation and church discipline: Otuo

Another one we missed…

In Otuo v Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain [2019] EWHC 1349 (QB), Mr Otuo had been “disfellowshipped” by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and an announcement to that effect had been made at a meeting of the Wimbledon Congregation [1 & 2]. Further, during a meeting at which he sought to be reinstated, he had recorded surreptitiously one of those present making what he alleged to be a defamatory statement:

“So just going back to July of last year when you were disfellowshipped, I think it was July 19 that it was announced to the congregation, is that correct? I think it was … do you… how do [you] view then what you were disfellowshipped for? Do you understand what you were disfellowshipped for? … Just to summarise what I thought you have said, is that even today you would not accept it was fraud … That is what you seem to be saying?” [3].

The circumstances in which Mr Otuo was disfellowshipped appear to be that in June 2008, he had entered into a loan agreement with Mr Wee, a fellow member of the Wimbledon Congregation, under which Mr Wee loaned Mr Otuo’s company £175,000, repayable in full on 30 June 2009 – and the loan had not been repaid [49]. Mr Otuo’s contention was that Mr Wee’s loan had been made to the company rather than to him personally and that the company alone had assumed the obligation to repay Mr Wee [52] – therefore, there was no issue of misconduct on his part that would justify his being disfellowshipped.

Mr Otuo made two Claims: Claim 1 was that the announcement that he had been disfellowshipped had been of itself defamatory and Claim 2 was that the words that he had recorded at the second meeting were also defamatory.

Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a Deputy Judge of the Queen’s Bench Division, summed up the issues as follows:

“(1) Whether there is any difference between “Scriptural fraud” and “fraud” in other contexts which is material in the particular circumstances of either of these Claims.

(2) Whether the slanders complained of are actionable per se (ie without proof of special damage), or in other words, whether they impute a crime for which Mr Otuo could be made to suffer physically by way of punishment (i.e. be imprisoned).

(3) Whether Mr Otuo consented to publication of the words complained of.

(4) Whether the publications were made on occasions of qualified privilege.

(5) If so, whether the defence of qualified privilege is defeated by malice.

(6) Whether it is true that Mr Otuo had been disfellowshipped for fraud.

(7) Whether the decision to disfellowship Mr Otuo was ultra vires.

(8) Whether Watch Tower Britain authorised or is vicariously liable for the publications.

(9) Whether the Claims unjustifiably interfere with the Defendants’ rights guaranteed by Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

(10) Whether Mr Otuo is entitled to any, and, if so, what, relief” [4].

Dismissed both Claims [197], the Court held that:

“(1) There is no difference between ‘Scriptural fraud’ and ‘fraud’ in other contexts which is material in the particular circumstances of either of these Claims.

(2) The slanders complained of are actionable per se.

(3) Mr Otuo consented to publication of the words complained of in Claim 2.

(4) The publications were made on occasions of qualified privilege.

(5) The defence of qualified privilege is not defeated by malice in either Claim.

(6) It is true that Mr Otuo had been disfellowshipped for fraud.

(7) The decision to disfellowship Mr Otuo was not ultra vires.

(8) Watch Tower Britain did not authorise and is not vicariously liable for the publications.

(9) The Claims do not give rise to unjustifiable interference with Convention rights.

(10) Mr Otuo is not entitled to any relief, and both Claims must be dismissed (not least because neither Claim 1 nor Claim 2 crosses the threshold of seriousness)“ [199].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Defamation and church discipline: Otuo" in Law & Religion UK, 20 June 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/06/20/defamation-and-church-discipline-otuo/

1 thought on “Defamation and church discipline: Otuo

  1. On the face of it ‘disfellowship’ seems akin to ‘Hammering’ on the ‘Change’, in which case it would have been sufficient that Mr Otuo failed to comply with his bargains.

    In a spiritual community, the distinction between a person and a company he owns may not be observed if it appears to be a device for avoiding payment. In the premises, the word ‘fraud’ may not refer to the criminal offence of fraud but may refer simply to misleading circumstances.

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