Munster v Lamb: CA 1883

Judges and witness, including police officers are given immunity from suit in defamation in court proceedings.
Fry LJ said: ‘Why should a witness be able to avail himself of his position in the box and to make without fear of civil consequences a false statement, which in many cases is perjured, and which is malicious and affects the character of another? The rule of law exists, not because the conduct of those persons ought not of itself to be actionable, but because if their conduct was actionable, actions would be brought against judges and witnesses in cases in which they had not spoken with malice, in which they had not spoken with falsehood. It is not a desire to prevent actions from being brought in cases where they ought to be maintained that has led to the adoption of the present rule of law; but it is the fear that if the rule were otherwise, numerous actions would be brought against persons who were merely discharging their duty. It must always be borne in mind that it is not intended to protect malicious and untruthful persons, but that it is intended to protect persons acting bona fide, who under a different rule would be liable, not perhaps to verdicts and judgments against them, but to the vexation of defending actions.’
Privilege applies even though what is said is gratuitous and irrelevant to what proves to be an issue in the issue in the trial.
Lord Brett MR said: ‘The rule of law is that what is said in the course of the administration of the law, is privileged; and the reason of that rule covers a counsel even more than a judge or a witness. To my mind it is illogical to argue that the protection of privilege ought not to exist for a counsel, who deliberately and maliciously slanders another person. The reason of the rule is, that a counsel, who is not malicious and who is acting bona fide, may not be in danger of having actions brought against him. If the rule of law were otherwise, the most innocent of counsel might be unrighteously harassed with suits, and therefore it is better to make the rule of law so large that an innocent counsel shall never be troubled, although by making it so large counsel are included who have been guilty of malice and misconduct.’
Brett MR continued, saying: ‘It was at one time suggested that although witnesses could not be held liable to actions upon the case for defamation, that is, for actions for libel and slander, nevertheless they might be held liable in another and different form of action on the case, namely, an action analogous to an action for malicious prosecution, in which it would be alleged that the statement complained of was false to the knowledge of the witness, and was made maliciously and without reasonable or probable cause. This view has been supported by high authority; but it seems to me wholly untenable. If an action for libel or slander cannot be maintained, how can such an action as I have mentioned be maintained, it being in truth an action for defamation in an altered form? Every objection and every reason, which can be urged against an action for libel or slander, will equally apply against the suggested form of action. Therefore, to my mind, the best way to deal with the suggested form of action is to dispose of it in the words of Crompton J in Henderson v Broomhead, where he said: ‘The attempts to obtain redress for defamation having failed, an effort was made in Revis v Smith to sustain an action analogous to an action for malicious prosecution. That seems to have been done in despair.’ Nothing could be more strong, nothing could shew more clearly his entire disbelief in the possibility of supporting that new form of action.’


Fry LJ, Sir Balliol Brett MR


(1883) 11 QBD 588


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedDarker v Chief Constable of The West Midlands Police HL 1-Aug-2000
The plaintiffs had been indicted on counts alleging conspiracy to import drugs and conspiracy to forge traveller’s cheques. During the criminal trial it emerged that there had been such inadequate disclosure by the police that the proceedings were . .
CitedSilcott v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis CA 24-May-1996
The claimant had been convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock. The only substantial evidence was in the form of the notes of interview he said were fabricated by senior officers. His eventual appeal on this basis was not resisted. He now appealed . .
CitedHeath v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis CA 20-Jul-2004
The female civilian officer alleged sex discrimination against her by a police officer. Her complaint was heard at an internal disciplinary. She alleged sexual harrassment, and was further humiliated by the all male board’s treatment of her . .
CitedTaylor and Others v Director of The Serious Fraud Office and Others HL 29-Oct-1998
The defendant had requested the Isle of Man authorities to investigate the part if any taken by the plaintiff in a major fraud. No charges were brought against the plaintiff, but the documents showing suspicion came to be disclosed in the later . .
CitedGeneral Medical Council v Professor Sir Roy Meadow, Attorney General CA 26-Oct-2006
The GMC appealed against the dismissal of its proceedings for professional misconduct against the respondent doctor, whose expert evidence to a criminal court was the subject of complaint. The doctor said that the evidence given by him was . .
CitedWestcott v Westcott QBD 30-Oct-2007
The claimant said that his daughter in law had defamed him. She answered that the publication was protected by absolute privilege. She had complained to the police that he had hit her and her infant son.
Held: ‘the process of taking a witness . .
CitedWestcott v Westcott CA 15-Jul-2008
The defendant was the claimant’s daughter in law. In the course of a bitter divorce she made allegations to the police which were investigated but did not lead to a prosecution. The claimant appealed dismissal of his claim for defamation on the . .
CitedIqbal v Mansoor and Others QBD 26-Aug-2011
The claimant sought the disapplication of the limitation period in order to pursue the defendant solicitors, his former employers, in defamation. . .
CitedCabassi v Vila 12-Dec-1940
High Court of Australia – The claim sought to sidestep the rule giving immuity to witnesses before a court by alleging a conspiracy to give false evidence.
Held: Starke J said: ‘But it does not matter whether the action is framed as an action . .
CitedSingh v Moorlands Primary School and Another CA 25-Jul-2013
The claimant was a non-white head teacher, alleging that her school governors and local authority had undermined and had ‘deliberately endorsed a targeted campaign of discrimination, bullying, harassment and victimisation’ against her as an Asian . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Police, Defamation

Leading Case

Updated: 31 July 2022; Ref: scu.184730