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John Vander Luit

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Defamation claims drop to lowest level since 2008

Defamation claims drop to lowest level since 2008


Social media drives rise in cases brought against individuals

The total number of reported defamation cases in the UK is at the lowest level since 2008/9, but claims against individuals are on the rise thanks to social media, according to new research.

The fall from 63 cases in 2015 to 58 last year, a drop of 8 per cent, is partly driven by the 2013 Defamation Act, which came into force in 2014 and made it more difficult for businesses to bring successful claims against newspapers and other entities.

Only ten defamation cases were brought by businesses in 2016, a 41 per cent drop from 17 the year before. There also was a sharp decline in cases brought by celebrities with only three reported compared with 12 cases the year before.

'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,' said Nicola Cain, legal director in the media team at RPC.

'One of the aims of the reforms of the Defamation Act was to ensure that only serious claims could be brought and it seems it is having that desired effect.

'Defamation cases brought by celebrities have declined even more rapidly. Increasingly cases brought by celebrities against media companies are presented as breaches of their privacy or data protection rights.'

Thomson Reuters, which undertook the research, found that social media is the only area where defamation cases are continuing to increase, with 13 cases last year, up from 11 in 2014/15 and eight in 2013/14.

As social media plays an ever more prominent role both for personal and corporate communications '“ with many users operating accounts simultaneously across Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and Instagram '“ the risks of making defamatory comments to a wide audience increases.

'Social media has made it easier than ever to post defamatory statements online,' continued Cain. '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.

'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.'

The Thomson Reuters research suggests that defamation cases involving social media are part of the reason for an increasing proportion of claims being brought against individuals rather than media organisations or businesses.

Private individuals were named as defendants in 25 out of 58 cases last year, which represents 43 per cent of cases '“ compared to 20 out of 63 cases (32 per cent) the year before and 22 out of 86 (26 per cent) the year before that.