Lawyer wins R100 000 for defamation

2008-01-24 00:00

A Pietermaritzburg High Court judge has ordered the Safety and Security minister to pay damages of R100 000 to a former attorney for Pakistani businessman, Wassim Agha, over defamatory allegations made by a police officer to the effect that she had a "love affair" with her client.

The allegation against attorney Sheena Raghavjee (32) was aired publicly during Agha’s 2004 bail hearing in the Durban Magistrate’s Court by Superintendent Anton Booysen.

At the time Agha was charged with the murders of his wife, Aneesa Sukan, their baby daughter, Zil, and Sukan’s father, Anand, in March 2004.

Agha was eventually acquitted of the charges by a high court judge.

In a reserved judgment handed down yesterday, Judge Piet Koen said in his view the statement made by Booysen, apart from being defamatory, carried the "additional sting" that Raghavjee acted unprofessionally.

He said Booysen’s legal team raised a number of defences, including that the statements were made on a privileged occasion and were relevant to the issues raised in the bail application; that Booysen lacked the necessary intention to defame Raghavjee in her reputation and that the statements were true or that Booysen reasonably believed them to be true.

It was also suggested that they constituted comment or opinion which was fair on a matter of public interest.

The judge said the plain meaning of the words used by Booysen connote that Raghavjee had a sexual relationship with Agha, as well as the context in which they were used.

On his own version Booysen did not have any basis to say that Agha and Raghavjee were having a sexual affair.

The judge said Booysen’s protestations that he was "absolutely not suggesting" that the couple were involved in a sexual relationship and that when he used the words "love affair" this "could not have been something further from his mind,", rang hollow.

"Employing the words he did could only convey one meaning to the ordinary hearer thereof, and being a senior official and an intelligent man, he cannot expect this court to believe that he did not intend what the words in their ordinary sense mean."

Judge Koen said in the circumstances the statements were not justified and were an abuse of privilege and not deserving of protection by law.

The judge also found that it could not be concluded on the evidence as a matter of probability that Booysen reasonably believed in the truth of the statements.

The judge said in his assessment of Raghavjee she tended to "over-dramatise or exaggerate" some of he consequences of the defamation. There also appeared to have been some "familiarity" between her and Agha going beyond a strict attorney/client relationship and extending to her having accepted an invitation to a concert at Suncoast casino and function at John Dorys.

"There is no reason why a young female professional … should refuse such an invitation. It is certainly not a licence to immediately classify such interaction as a "love affair". Unfortunately, however, it creates an opportunity that invites comment and speculation. In the interests of strict professionalism, such interaction between an attorney and client should be avoided," the judge stated in his judgment.

He said taking into account all factors, R100 000 damages would be appropriate.

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