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Sticks and stones… what can you do if you have been a victim of defamation?

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We explain the legal options available to you

Social media has become a breeding ground for all manner of trolls who throw about wild accusations on social platforms, review sites and more. Sometimes comments are completely untrue and can be extremely damaging to the target of their ire.

But what can you do if someone publishes something untrue about you in writing, or spreads lies about you by word of mouth? In this article, I explain the laws of defamation and outline how you can use them to protect your reputation if someone is spreading hurtful lies about you.

Defamation is an umbrella term used to describe both libel and slander. Libel is something untrue said in writing or via a recording, while slander refers to a spoken untruth – which could be a public statement or may just be a conversation between friends. It can arise in a number of situations, such as through gossip shared in the workplace, over email, via social media or on review websites.

As well as it being deeply upsetting having lies spread about you, defamation can also damage your reputation and this may lead to a loss of income. For example, if a prospective employer scours your social media accounts as part of the recruitment process and, believing the lies said about you, opts not to hire you. Professionals who are defamed can also suffer loss of business if the lies told about them on review websites are believed and influence potential customers.

What redress is available for defamation?

If you are concerned that someone has said something or published something about you that is untrue, you may have a valid claim for defamation. A defamation claim is open to anyone who has had falsehoods said about them. It is not, as popularly perceived, an action just reserved for the rich and famous, who have had their alleged scandals plastered over national newspapers.

Our solicitors can negotiate with publishers to have the offending material removed, or a retraction or apology printed, and we can try to obtain a fair out-of-court damages settlement. If your case has to go to court, we will handle all the paperwork, and be there to offer guidance and speak on your behalf in court.

The court has a range of options when it comes to remedies for defamation claims, including:

  • an injunction to prevent further publication or communication of the defamatory material;
  • damages to compensate you for reputational or financial loss;
  • publication of a summary of the court’s judgment; and
  • an order to remove the defamatory material from an online environment.

What steps can you take?

If you think you have been defamed, you should amass proof that the statement was false, that it was published or communicated to a third person, and that you suffered reputational damage as a result of the publication. Evidence that will strengthen your case would include copies or screenshots of the libelous report, or witness statements of those who have heard slanderous material.

To be successful in your claim under the Defamation Act 2013, you must be able to show that the offending statement clearly referred to you, that it was untrue and that its publication has caused or is likely to cause ‘serious harm’ to your reputation. The threshold for serious harm is set relatively high, so a claim may not succeed if the defamatory statement was unlikely to be taken seriously or was read by very few people.

If you are bringing a defamation claim on behalf of a profit-making business, the Defamation Act additionally requires you to show that the defamatory statement caused you financial loss, for example, through clients boycotting your business and going elsewhere on the basis of the untruth.

Either an opinion or a statement of fact can be defamatory, but in a defamation claim, the onus is always on the defendant to prove their case, not on you to prove that they were lying or being malicious.

Check if there is a possible defence

Your solicitor will need to check that none of the defences under the Defamation Act apply to the particular situation.

The alleged defamer may have a defence if they can prove that the statement was actually true or that their opinion was an honestly held one. When assessing whether it was an honestly held opinion, the defendant must show that the basis of the opinion was indicated in the statement and that it was an opinion that an honest person could hold based on a fact that existed at the time. If it can be shown that the defendant did not hold that opinion, the defence will fail.

Another important defence is that provided to website operators under the Defamation Act and the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013. You will only succeed in a defamation claim against a website operator who allowed a defamatory statement to be posted online if:

  • the author of the statement cannot be identified;
  • if you complained to the website operator about the post; and
  • the operator did not remove the post or hand over details of the poster to you, which can only be done with the poster’s consent.

A ‘single publication rule’ defence is also available under the Defamation Act, which means you can only sue if you bring your action within 12 months of the statement first being published (although you can still bring a claim if a subsequent publication is materially different from the first or if it is republished by a different person).

Other defences are available for privileged reports, such as those made in court, and for peer-reviewed statements in scientific or academic journals.

How we can help

If you think you have been a victim of defamation, you should contact our lawyers as soon as possible. They will be able to quickly assess if you have a valid claim and, if you do, help you gather the evidence you need to strengthen your case and ward off any possible defences under the Defamation Act.

For further information, please contact Luke Edwards in the Dispute Resolution team on 01733 882800 or email [email protected].


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