Courts are not always interested in defamation cases

An Hendrina attorney, James Charles Reynecke Smith, recently had his appeal to the Pretoria High Court regarding his unsuccessful defamation claim rejected because “the incident was insignificant and did not warrant the court’s attention”.

[John McGraw (New York NL) at left, speaking to Jake Stahl (Boston AL) prior to a game of the 1912 World Series at the Polo Grounds, NY, October 1912 (baseball)] (LOC)

According to News24, Smith had just moved into new offices and was having new carpets installed. Mats apparently had to be placed in the sun to enable the glue to stick better. The defendant in the proceedings, Christiaan Jacobus Botes, apparently drove over one of the mats which was partly in the road where other motorists had driven around them. Smith angrily confronted Botes and Botes allegedly called Smith a “doos” and a “poes” during the course of the exchange.

Smith appears to have sued Botes for damages in the amount of R100 000 in the local Magistrates Court (the maximum claim permitted in a Magistrates Court unless the parties agree otherwise) and the magistrate dismissed the claim. Smith then appealed to the Pretoria High Court against the magistrate’s decision. The judges apparently said there was no question Botes’ comments were defamatory (the judgment doesn’t appear to be available yet so I am relying on News24’s report) and the question was likely whether the defamation was defensible. Ultimately, though, the judges stated that the matter was not significant enough to warrant the court’s attention and Smith’s appeal presumably failed on that basis.

This case is a good reminder that not every defamation case is as severe as the parties may believe and certainly not that severe that our overburdened courts would leap to the parties’ aid. There is a maxim in our law (well, there are many but this is a Latin phrase I actually remember from university) which the judges likely invoked: De minimis non curat lex. In a nutshell it means the law does not concern itself with trifles. While there are defamation cases which are significant, there are far more that are not matters the courts will concern themselves with. In those cases good sense and maturity would probably lead to a far better result.

(Credit: Thanks to my colleague, Lance Michalson, for his tweet about this story which inspired my post)

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