Millions of consumers are used to leaving online reviews for services; from patios to pizzas and hotels to holidays. Many providers of professional services also invite reviews on platforms such as Trustpilot. A firm of London solicitors invited such reviews and got a bit more when they bargained for when a dissatisfied reviewer referred to them as a 'scam solicitor'. The firm claimed that the number of enquiries it received for new business dropped following the posting of the review and as a result, the firm took legal action against the reviewer.
Broadly, a statement is libellous if it is published, false and damages a person's reputation. Thus, libel is written defamation. This is contrasted with slander which is to make false spoken statements which damages a person's reputation.
The case was heard by the High Court and the court decided in favour of the law firm and ordered the reviewer to pay £25,000 to the firm in libel damages. The court was particularly swayed by the seriousness of the fact that the firm had been accused of dishonesty.
The interesting postscript to this story is the fact that Trustpilot has stated that it strongly opposes 'the use of legal action to silence consumers freedom of speech'. Trustpilot goes on to say that this is the first time it has encountered a business taking 'such extreme measures' against a consumer.
The case is a salutary reminder for business and their customers. There is a tendency to view comments online and on social media as being anonymous but this is not the case. Accordingly, people should always consider their words carefully when they want to leave a negative review, even if very dissatisfied with the service received. On the other hand, a business that has received a negative review should think very hard about how it responds to it. There have been suggestions in the media that the law firm in this case may have damaged its reputation to some extent by taking legal action in the first place.
If anyone is dissatisfied with service received, they would be well advised to pursue a formal, hopefully private, complaints procedure.
To discuss this or any other commercial litigation matter, contact us.