Toronto Star

Record libel award upheld

By David Vienneau

July 21, 1995

OTTAWA- The largest libel award in Canadian history – more than $1.6 million against the Church of Scientology and Toronto lawyer Morris Manning – has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The unanimous judgment means former crown attorney Casey Hill, now an Ontario Court judge, can collect more than $1.45 million from the church and $150,000 from Manning.

In making the decision, the court rejected an invitation from Manning, the church and a coalition of media and writers to refashion Canada’s libel laws along American lines. Their goal was to make it more difficult for public officials to sue.

The case dates back to the summer of 1984. While wearing his barrister’s robes outside Osgoode Hall, Manning told reporters his client, the church, was bringing a contempt of court action against Hill.

Manning falsely alleged Hill misled a judge and breached a court order sealing more than 200 documents seized in a police raid on Scientology’s Toronto headquarters. Hill had been advising police.

They wanted Hill charged with contempt of court, and either imprisoned or fined. Although the church knew within 10 days of the Manning news conference that some of its allegations were untrue, it continued to defend them as justified.

A shocked Hill had watched the scene on TV. The contempt charges were later dismissed but, with his reputation questioned, he determined he had no alternative but to sue for libel.

In 1992, he won the largest jury award in history. Later in upholding that decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal said he had been a victim of "character assassination."

The church and Manning appealed to the high court.

They argued Manning’s statement was read from a court document and they should have been afforded the same legal protection they would have received had he read it in court.

The court altered the law slightly by agreeing with Manning and the church that they should have enjoyed a qualified privilege because they were reading from a legal document filed with a court the next day.

The problem, wrote Mr. Justice Peter Cory in an 89-page judgment, was that Manning went too far.

As an experienced lawyer, Manning should have confirmed the legitimacy of the allegations before launching such "a serious attack on Hill’s professional integrity" in front of the media, he wrote.

Manning, best known for his successful defense of abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler, could not be reached for comment.

But Scientology spokesperson Rev. Al Buttnor condemned the ruling for seriously restricting free speech.

"Freedom to criticize the conduct of public officials in the exercise of their duties should be the right of all Canadians," Buttnor said in a statement.

The ruling is significant for a number of other reasons besides the size of the award.

The court had been asked to limit the amount of money a jury can award but it declined to do so, saying it trusted representatives of the community to do the right thing.

The media, including the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association, along with Manning and the church, maintained the libel law violated the freedom of expression guarantee contained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The law currently makes no distinction between libel suits by ordinary citizens and those by public officials in response to statements made in connection with their duties. As such, the coalition maintained it encouraged "libel chill."

A person who is suing must prove only that a publication is "reasonably capable" of being defamatory – that is, the words tend to lower the person’s reputation in the eyes of the community.