A former client of a Birmingham firm was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages plus costs after posting a defamatory review online.
The firm, Summerfield Browne, relied heavily on the internet for new client enquiries via the telephone enquiries.
Philip Waymouth had been involved in a dispute over the enforcement of a court order and instructed the firm for a £200 fixed fee, after coming across the firm following an internet search.
But for reasons never given, he was dissatisfied with the service he received, and instead of engaging with the firm under its complaints procedure Waymouth posted a negative review on the TrustPilot website headed “A total waste of money another scam solicitor” [sic].
As a result of the review, the firm said the number of weekly enquiries fell markedly for about five weeks from some 50-60 a week to 30-40, equating to around £300 per day.
The firm brought a defamation claim and Waymouth attempted to rely on the defences of honest opinion, public trust and truth.
The High Court heard that the firm is of good reputation and has never been criticised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The court struck out Waymouth's defence in part on the basis of his conduct.
Waymouth’s assertion that the firm was a “scam solicitor” was presented as fact and not opinion, therefore, his defence of honest opinion could not stand.
He also wanted money in return for removing the review, which completely undermined the public interest defence.
Further, it was "inconceivable" that a firm such as this could be a scam or a fraudulently trading firm - and have an unblemished record.
Master David Cook made clear that the first stage of a complaint should “always be the first stage in resolving any issues of customer satisfaction”.
He concluded: “It is beyond any dispute that the words complained of had a clear tendency to put people off dealing with the claimant firm.
“It is difficult to conclude that the defendant had any other purpose in mind when posting his review.
“It is a serious matter to accuse a solicitors’ firm of dishonesty and any such allegation is likely to deter those who are unfamiliar with the firm from using its services.”