PRESS STATEMENT | Constitutional Court hands down Judgment in landmark case dealing with protection against SLAPP suits and the right to freedom of expression

Date: 15/11/2022

On 14 November 2022, the Constitutional Court handed down its judgment in the matter of Christine Reddell and Others v Mineral Sands Resources Propriety Limited and Another, CCT 67/21. This was an appeal concerning Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation law suits (SLAPP suits), the right to freedom of expression, and access to courts. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) had represented the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) who had intervened in these proceedings as friends of the court.

The appeal was brought by mining company, Mineral Sands Resources (Pty) Ltd & three others (the applicants) and concerned a claim for defamation against a group of South African environmental lawyers and activists (human rights defenders). In their submissions before the high court, the applicants sought damages in the amount of R14,25 million (950 000 USD) against the six human rights defenders, for publicly criticising the applicant’s mining activities and operations, including the harmful impact that they posed on both the environment and economy of the affected areas. Ultimately, the Constitutional Court sought to assess whether an award for damages to a trading corporation for defamation is constitutional.

In the appeal brought to the Constitutional Court, the SAHRDN had been admitted as a friend of the court, and its submissions emphasized that, when interpreting the issue of SLAPP suits, which is novel in South African law, the court must interpret the issues before it through the lens of a range of international instruments that are both binding and non-binding on South Africa. Significantly, the Court stated, in relation to the SAHRDN’s submissions, that:

[T]hey sought to ensure that the Court considered international law principles that promote the ability of human rights defenders to participate in public interest issues that may involve litigation. Their submissions were helpful to the Court for which we are indebted.

In its judgment, the Court noted that a trading corporation has a common law right to its good name and reputation that is safeguarded by the Constitution’s equality provisions. This right may be enforced by making a claim for general damages with the caveat that it may not be used, at the court’s discretion, in situations involving public discourse in debates in the public interest. The Court further indicated that a business has the right to safeguard its good name and reputation and that, ultimately, general damages are an acceptable remedy for the unlawful defamation of a trade corporation, subject to this restriction. On the other hand, without this restriction, a claim for general damages for defamation places an unjustified restriction on the right to free speech.

According to Arnold Tsunga, SAHRDN Chairperson, this judgment is an important step towards recognising SLAPP as an abuse of the court process and poses a serious risk to the important work of human rights defenders in our region.

Charné Tracey, LHR attorney, stated, ‘Whilst we welcome the Court’s decision which provides some limit to the general damages claims made by trading corporations, through its recognition that SLAPP suits muzzle critical voices by pressuring people into silence, the discretion provided to courts to exercise this limit is worrying as SLAPPs for human right defenders who don’t have the same resources to engage court proceedings at an equal footing as trading corporations. SLAPP suits deflect attention away from conversations on corporate social responsibility and transform delicate public policy issues into difficult private law disputes by posing as normal civil disputes. Whilst the judgement does not adequately deal with the effects of SLAPP suits, the judgement is a step to towards protecting freedom of speech and human rights defenders.’

We remain greatly indebted to Adv Jatheen Bhima and Adv Mluleki Marongo who presented the SAHRDN’s submissions to the Constitutional Court on this important matter.

For further information and media enquiries:

Charné Tracey, attorney in the LHR Environmental Rights Program


Tel: 011 339 1960

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