Full Court reserves ruling in Jagdeo-Ferguson defamation case

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Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo and former Minister Annette Ferguson

The Full Court has reserved its ruling on Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo’s appeal against a default judgement granted to former APNU-AFC Government Minister Annette Ferguson in a defamation action she had brought against him regarding statements he made about her acquisition of a plot of land.

The default judgement was awarded against Jagdeo on March 11 after he failed to file a defence within 28 days of the filing of Ferguson’s Statement of Claim, which was done sometime in January 2020. The 28-day period is prescribed under Art 12:01 (2) (d) of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR).

During the hearing of the appeal on Thursday afternoon, Jagdeo’s lawyer Devinda Kissoon urged the Full Court – comprising Chief Justice Roxane George, SC, and Justice Priya Sewnarine-Beharry – to overturn the default judgement which was granted by Justice Sandra Kurtzious. In doing so, the lawyer argued that Ferguson did not meet the requirements for the granting of such a judgement.
Moreover, he contended that his client has a real prospect of defending the lawsuit, since the statements he had made about the former Government Minister were not defamatory.

Jagdeo had asked Justice Kurtzious to overturn her own judgement, but his application had been dismissed after the Judge had found that his excuse for the non-filing of the defence was unreasonable, and that the statements he had made about Ferguson were indeed slanderous.
Kissoon submitted that his client’s then-lawyer, Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC, had been preoccupied with the 2020 National Elections, and the constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had led to him inadvertently failing to file the defence, though it was drafted.

Before the Full Court, Ferguson’s lawyer argued that inadvertence by counsel as a reason for non-compliance with the CPR cannot be countenanced as a reason for non-compliance. If that were to be allowed, he said, all lawyers would advance such a reason as a ploy to get an extension.

According to the lawyer, the elections were concluded on August 2, 2020, and right up to the time Jagdeo was served with the judgement order in April – more than half of a year later – there was no application filed by his lawyer for relief from sanctions, nor was there any request for an extension of time to file his defence.

While Jagdeo contended that the pandemic had caused some level of constraint in the judiciary, Ferguson’s lawyer noted that the pandemic is still affecting the world, and he went on to point out that it did not affect Jagdeo from filing, within a few days of the judgment order to pay, an application to have same set aside.

In the lawsuit, Ferguson complained that Jagdeo made statements in which he questioned her acquisition of a house lot and the construction of her home at Eccles on the East Bank of Demerara. The former Government Minister submitted that the unjust statements have tarnished her reputation.

Justice Kurtzious, in her ruling, had said that although the reasons proffered by Jagdeo to justify his not filing a defence were numerous, “they left the court unconvinced as to their accuracy and reasonableness.” She noted that the time for filing a defence began to run from January 2020, and one year later, in January 2021, no steps had been taken to cure the default; and, more so, no evidence was provided to prove same.

Kissoon’s submission that the defence of justification, fair comment, qualified privilege, and the provisions of the Defamation Act were applicable in this case was rejected by the Judge. Having examined the statements made by the Vice President about Ferguson, Justice Kurtzious held that they were very serious allegations, as they suggested that she was corrupt and involved in misappropriation. To this end, the Judge held that as a result of Jagdeo’s statements, Ferguson stood to be prejudiced by suffering financial loss and injury to her character.

Jagdeo was also ordered by the lower court to pay $75,000 in costs.

In the meantime, until a ruling has been rendered, the Full Court has granted a stay of the default judgement against Jagdeo, for which damages were to be assessed by Justice Kurtzious.
Ferguson has been seeking more than $50 million in damages from Jagdeo for statements he made on December 18 and 19, 2019.