The power of truth: cult leader's defamation lawsuit dismissed

20 March 2024

Warning: This article contains details about abuse which may be upsetting for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Natasha Lakaev, a psychologist and leader of the New Age Cult 'Universal Knowledge' which operated in northern New South Wales, recently lost her defamation case against a former follower who wrote a tell-all novel about her experiences and recovery.

In issue

  • The plaintiff brought an action in the Supreme Court of Tasmania, alleging that the defendant had defamed her in a book which outlined the defendant’s experiences over a 13 year period in an alleged cult. The action related to specific passages from the book, passages from newspaper articles that were reproduced in it, as well as published materials from other sources, including the defendant’s website, a podcast, the defendant’s Facebook page and twitter account.
  • Estcourt J was asked to determine whether the defendant could rely on the defence of justification in order to be excused from the publication of defamatory imputations which the plaintiff argued were not 'substantially true' pursuant to section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005 (Tas) (the Act).

The background

In or around July 2017 the defendant released a book entitled The Cult Effect (the Book), which detailed her experiences in an alleged cult run by the plaintiff.

The Book was referenced in various journalistic publications, and the defendant also reiterated her experiences on her website, a podcast, her Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Passages in both the Book and any republications detailed the defendant’s experiences in the cult, which included both physical and psychological abuse, drug and alcohol use and financial exploitation.

The plaintiff argued that the passages from the Book and any republications were defamatory in that they carried the following imputations:

  • The plaintiff was a bully and had bullied the Defendant;
  • The plaintiff had unlawfully battered the Defendant;
  • The plaintiff had unlawfully battered other persons;
  • The plaintiff had unlawfully incited other persons to batter persons;
  • The plaintiff had unlawfully obtained a financial advantage;
  • The plaintiff had unlawfully used illicit drugs and encouraged others to do so;
  • The plaintiff wrongfully indoctrinated people;
  • The plaintiff had breached Australian industrial legislation;
  • The plaintiff was a criminal.

Further, the plaintiff pleaded that the online publications were defamatory in that they carried the following imputations:

  • The plaintiff was unfit to practice as a psychologist;
  • The plaintiff committed acts of abuse against the defendant;
  • The plaintiff physically abused the defendant;
  • The plaintiff is likely to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder;
  • The plaintiff is a violent extremist;
  • The plaintiff misused her position as a psychologist to threaten the defendant;
  • The plaintiff was guilty of abuse and physical assault of the defendant, such as to warrant her de-registration as a psychologist.

The defendant admitted the publication of such materials, however, by way of defence pleaded:

  • justification (s 25 of the Act);
  • contextual truth (s 26 of the Act);
  • qualified privilege (s 30 of the Act);
  • honest opinion (s 31 of the Act); and
  • qualified privilege at common law.

Further, the defendant denied that her publications had greatly injured the plaintiff’s personal and professional reputation. Instead, the defendant argued that the plaintiff’s 'personal and professional reputation was such that she was already likely to be shunned, avoided, ridiculed or despised.'

The decision at trial

Estcourt J accepted the evidence of the defendant and her witnesses and rejected that of the plaintiff and her witnesses. Estcourt J observed the plaintiff to be dishonest and unreliable, stating that her witnesses did not appear to be independent but instead remained deeply loyal to the plaintiff. Comparatively, Estcourt J considered the defendant to be honest and reliable, and that each witness she called was impartial as they did not maintain a significant relationship with the defendant, but merely shared similar experiences as the defendant.

Based on Estcourt J’s acceptance of the defendant’s evidence, and comparative rejection of the plaintiff’s evidence, His Honour found that each imputation from the Book, articles and republications was substantially true and as such the defence of justification applied. It was therefore unnecessary to consider the other defences pleaded by the defendant.

Implications for you

In a defamation proceeding the Court will invariably take into consideration the credibility of witnesses when determining the availability or otherwise of a defence of justification (if pleaded). Having regard to this an early assessment of the independence and credibility of witness evidence is important to enable identification and adoption of an appropriate strategy in defence of such a claim.

Lakaev v McConkey [2024] TASSC 8

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