Defamation: Rubbishing attorney costs woman R70 000

A dispute over a R3 600 legal bill has cost a Cape Town woman R70 000 after she was found to have besmirched a lawyer’s good name, says a Sunday Times report. Two judges in KZN have agreed with an earlier ruling by Pietermaritzburg Regional Court Magistrate Rose Mogwera that Hemelene Chetty defamed attorney Saras Perumaul when she alleged in a complaint to the KZN Law Society that Perumaul was ‘scamming the people of the community’. Chetty appealed against Mogwera’s ruling to the KZN High Court (Pietermaritzburg), but Judges Rob Mossop and Rishi Seegobin rejected her arguments.

The quarrel began in 2012 when Perumaul, who has been practising for 25 years, approached Chetty’s mother to discuss the non-payment of a bill for a consultation they had had the year before. Chetty became involved. She called Perumaul, recording the conversation without her knowledge, and questioned her about details of the bill, wanting a breakdown of the fees. Perumaul declined to disclose the information and Chetty lodged her complaint with the Law Society, claiming Perumaul had been rude to her. In one of her affidavits, she accused Perumaul of painting a picture of her mother as a cold-hearted, gold-digging, shrewd racist who cared only about money and did not care about her husband, siblings, or children.

Chetty said she had done her own ‘little investigation’, and accused Perumaul of ‘scamming, for lack of a better word’, people in the community, preying on poor, uneducated people in their time of grief and breaking up families. The R3 600 bill was not an issue, Chetty said. She said she did not have proof, but she believed if the society did its own investigation, it might uncover things far worse. Perumaul sued Chetty in the Regional Court and won a damages award of R70 000. In considering Chetty’s appeal, the two judges said Perumaul had been correct in not discussing the bill with Chetty because she was not her client, notes the Sunday Times report.

The statement of account was detailed and was ‘unremarkable in its content and in the amount charged’, they said. It was little surprise that the Law Society had taken no action against Perumaul. They said that during the trial in the Regional Court, no evidence was adduced of any scam. There was also no evidence to support the allegation that the attorney ‘preyed’ on people. The judges said Chetty’s allegations that a further investigation would uncover far worse things that Perumaul had done was a ‘gratuitous slur’. ‘Viewed as a whole, the words used impugn the reputation and integrity of Perumaul and were designed to do so … they are clearly defamatory.’

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