Social media continues to trigger defamation court cases, despite drop in cases generally

Georgina Varley
Chaos Computer Club Annual Congress
Social media is the only area where defamation cases continue to rise (Source: Getty)

The number of reported defamation cases in the UK is at its lowest level since 2008/9, according to research by Thomson Reuters.

The figure dropped 8 per cent to 58 last year from 63 the year before. This is partly driven by the 2013 Defamation Act, which made it more difficult for businesses to bring cases against newspapers and similar entities.

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Only ten defamation court cases were brought by businesses last year, a drop of over 40 per cent from the year before.

There was also a sharp decline in cases brought by celebrities, with only three reported cases compared with 12 the year before.

Kim Waite, a senior associate at law firm RPC, said: "For businesses to succeed in a defamation action they now need to show that the damage to their reputation has caused or is likely to cause serious financial loss rather than just general reputational damage. Clearly that is far harder to prove."

Social media is the only area where defamation cases continue to rise. There were 13 cases in 2016, up from 11 in 2014/15 and 8 in 2013/4.

The ability to make defamatory comments available to a wide audience is something that the Internet allows for.

"Social media has made it easier than ever to post defamatory statements online. Sometimes users of social media act as though it is outside of the scope of the law and then they are shocked to find that all the laws relating to defamation do apply," said Waite.

The research also highlights that cases involving social media are a large part of the reason that defamation cases are being brought against individuals, rather than businesses.

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Waite continues: "Even when people are not being wilfully reckless on social media there are still risks – clearly you haven’t got a team of researchers, editors and lawyers to check what you say before your posts go live."

Individuals not associated with businesses were named as defendants in 25 out of the 58 cases (43 per cent) last year, compared to 20 out of 63 cases (32 per cent) in 2015 and 22 out of 86 (26 per cent) in 2014.

One of last year's more prominent cases featuring social media was Tardios and St Johns Prep School v Linton. The headmistress of an independent school won damages against the parent of a pupil who had started an online petition calling for her removal.

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