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Monday Sep 28 2020
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Meaning trial in London court set to begin in Shehbaz vs Daily Mail defamation case

Shehbaz Sharif addressing a press conference in London. — Photo courtesy PML-N

LONDON: The publishers of the Mail on Sunday have not submitted a defence in nine months in the defamation case initiated by Shehbaz Sharif and the two parties are set for a London High Court hearing in a few days on the “meaning” of the allegedly defamatory article.

Sources on both sides have confirmed that a trial hearing over the meaning will take place next month where it will be determined whether the words complained of by the former chief minister of Punjab are defamatory or not.

The meaning hearing in defamation cases takes place when the parties dispute over the meaning of the words and thus it’s left to the court to determine the meaning of the words as a preliminary issue, i.e., before going through the effort of preparing for a full trial.

According to legal experts, a trial of meaning as a preliminary issue prevents a defendant from wasting time and money by preparing a defence based on an interpretation of meaning which could change later in the proceedings and it also prevents the claimant from pursuing a case which may not turn out to be defamatory enough at the later stage and therefore weakening the case before the trial judge.

The outcome of the meaning hearing will determine which side has stronger argument. Both sides can still go ahead for the full trial regardless of the outcome of the meaning trial.

The paper had alleged that Shehbaz Sharif was involved in corrupting the funds given to Pakistan by British taxpayers.

The report said the Department for International Development (DFID) poured more than £500 million of UK taxpayers’ money into Punjab in the form of aid during Shehbaz's tenure as chief minister.

"Yet, say investigators, all the time that DFID was heaping him and his government with praise and taxpayers’ cash, Shehbaz and his family were embezzling tens of millions of pounds of public money and laundering it in Britain," wrote reporter David Rose. "They are convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects."

A source in Daily Mail confirmed that the publisher has not yet submitted its defence but will do so after the meaning issue is settled in the court.

Shehbaz Sharif is represented in the case by Carter Ruck and a legal source in his team claimed that Daily Mail lawyers have failed to submit evidence because they don’t have proof to back their claims. However, a source from Daily Mail said that due to COVID-19, there have been practical difficulties to deal with and that a defence will eventually be filed.

Both sides have expressed confidence in the merits of their case.

Sharif has said that he and his family couldn’t have taken any money from the earthquake fund because the calamity occurred in 2005 — before he became Punjab’s chief minister. Daily Mail will likely argue that the ERRA fund existed until 2012.

Daily Mail may also argue that Sharif’s son in law, Ali Imran, has stated in court in Pakistan to have taken the money in 2011 through an Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) official. Ali Imran has also launched his own libel claim against the paper through the law firm of PTI UK’s senior leader Waheed Miah.

The Daily Mail lawyers will also likely argue that David Rose didn’t allege that Shehbaz stole the money but asked whether his family did and will claim that the alleged theft is supported by bank transfer records and cheques as well as the monies sent to Pakistani bank accounts from an account in Birmingham.

Sharif’s team will rely on the statement issued by the DFID which rejected the allegations of embezzlement and said it’s funds were counted for and not corrupted.

Carter Ruck’s Alsdair Pepper has said that the DFID has already rubbished the claims made by the newspaper as “false and without any foundation”, backing Shehbaz Sharif's stance that he has never been involved in misappropriation of funds.

Pepper said: “The articles carried a grotesque allegation that Mr Sharif misappropriated UK taxpayers money and in particular government aid intended for the victims of the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Mr Sharif categorically denies this allegation; he asserts that there is no truth in it whatsoever.”