IS THERE STILL DEFAMATION BASED ON ADULTERY UNDER SOUTH AFRICAN LAW? A CRITICAL REVIEW J v J (4918 2012)  ZAKZDHC 33 (unreported)
Keywords:defamation, adultery, privacy and dignity
On 22 July 2016, the Durban High Court ruled (per Masipa J) that there is no longer an action for defamation founded on the publication of allegations of adultery against another person. The court solely based its finding on the earlier judgment of the Constitutional Court (CC) in DE v RH (2015 (5) SA 83 (CC); 2015 (9) BCLR 1003 (CC), hereinafter “DE”). Earlier, in June 2015, in the DE judgment, the CC had unanimously struck down delictual action for contumelia and loss of consortium damages founded on adultery. In annulling this action, the CC held that the common-law action for contumelia and loss of consortium was no longer viable and that it was incompatible with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Still, a question that was never considered by the courts prior the judgment of J is whether the DE judgment has automatically abolished other delictual actions aimed at protecting personality rights, specifically an action for defamation, and in general, actions for invasion of privacy and impairment of dignity, all founded on allegations of adultery. In this judgment, the court held that in view of the decision of DE, “public opinion no longer considers adultery as tabooed... a statement to the effect that a person committed adultery can no longer convey a meaning with the propensity to define a person …”. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to definitively answer this question ultimately presented itself, albeit in relation to defamation of character (or the protection of reputation), the court in J failed to satisfactorily address this vital question. As it will be demonstrated in this contribution, the judgment of Masipa J in the J judgment does not appear to be legally sound. Primarily, no authority, other than the CC judgment of DE, is used to support the judgment of J. As a result, the judgment has not even succeeded in dealing with the question of defamation, let alone other actions (namely, privacy and dignity) – all founded on adultery. Instead, the judgment creates confusion whether the judgment of DE extends to an action for defamation, and possibly to privacy and dignity. The objective of this note is to provide a critical analysis of the high court judgment in J. The critique is undertaken in light of the reasoning in DE and other like judgments. It begins by setting out the background to the ruling of the high court, followed by a commentary on the judgment. The commentary is undertaken in the form of a comparative analysis between the approaches adopted by the court in DE and in J, highlighting the striking differences in approaches by the two courts, when they develop the common-law. In addition, the critique of the high court judgment is made in light of the interests that the judgment of DE sought to protect when it abolished an action in adultery, and those that were at issue in the judgment of J. Thereafter, a conclusion is provided. The stance that the note adopts is that the CC in DE did not repeal defamation action founded on allegations of adultery; and that even if such action were to be annulled privacy and dignity ought to remain, as of necessity.
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