Widely reported upon this week has been the judgement in the defamation claim of Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth.
The claim for libel was commenced by Summerfield Brown against Mr Waymouth, a former client, after he left a negative review on the Trust Pilot website, which read:
“A total waste of money another scam solicitorReview left on Trust Pilot
Stacey mills left the company half way through my assessment and the replacement was useless. I paid upfront for a legal assessment of my case, but what I got was just the information I sent them, reworded and sent back to me. No new information or how to proceed or what the law says or indeed the implications of what was done. I Just got their false assumptions, full of errors showing a lack of understanding for the situation and the law. Once they have your money they are totally apathetic towards you. You will learn more from forums, you tube and the Citizens advice website about your case, for free”
Mr Waymouth did not fully engage with the proceedings and did not attend the hearing, but did acknowledge service and submit a defence, which the Claimants applied to have struck out.
The Defence sought to rely his defence on honest opinion, public interest and truth which the judge considered in turn:
In relation to honest opinion, the Claimant’s position was that the Defendant could not rely upon the defence of honest opinion as he had accused the claimant of being dishonest and fraudulent – in his opinion. The judge accepted the Claimant’s argument that the defence of honest opinion cannot succeed in cases where there has been an allegation of fraud and referred the judge to the case of Wasserman v Freilich . The judge agreed with them.
Mr Waymouth had sought money from the firm in return for removal of the review (a refund of his payment for the services). The judge found this demand to have wholly undermined his defence of public interest. Further, he had not engaged with the Claimant’s complaint procedure to resolve matters before posting the review. There was no defence that the review was in the public interest.
In relation to the defence of truth, the Claimant submitted that there was no credible basis for asserting the truth of the Defendant’s belief, as they were a responsible firm of solicitors with an unblemished record who could, under no circumstances be truthfully described as a “scam firm.”
The judge accepted that Summerfield Brown had suffered direct financial loss as a result of the review, with a significant drop in online enquiries in the months following the publication. They were awarded £25,000 in general damages and a s13 order requiring Trustpilot remove the review.
Defamation claims have a limitation period of a year and are brought in the High Court. They are notoriously expensive and the Claimant must be able to demonstrate the serious harm caused to their reputation as a direct result of the review or other publication. Perhaps the wide reporting of this case will give malicious reviewers pause for thought and make use of all available avenues of complaint before posting a review of their experience with the company in question.