English judge orders removal of negative online review of law firm following defamation claim
An English judge has ordered that a negative Trustpilot review posted by a dissatisfied former client of a solicitor firm be removed from the website after rejecting his defences to the claim.
The defendant, Philip Waymouth, paid Summerfield Browne Ltd a fixed fee of £200 in exchange for some legal advice. The action was brought by the firm after he left a Trustpilot review labelling it “a total waste of money” and a “scam”.
The case was heard by Master David Cook in the High Court of Justice (Queen’s Bench Division).
The defendant had been involved in a dispute concerning the enforcement of a court order. He sought out the claimant after an internet search, signed their standard terms and conditions, and was provided with legal advice. For reasons not fully articulated to the court, he was dissatisfied with the advice given and decided to leave a negative review of the firm on Trustpilot in lieu of engaging with their dispute resolution process.
The review, titled “A total waste of money another scam solicitor” read: “Once they have your money they are totally apathetic towards you. You will learn more from forums, you tube [sic] and the Citizens advice website about your case, for free.”
After seeing the review, the claimant contacted the defendant asking him to remove it from the Trustpilot website. In his reply, he said he would refuse to do so unless he was refunded the £200 plus VAT. Following this, the claimant raised a defamation action.
The claimant sought monetary damages as well as injunctive relief and an order to remove the defamatory words from the Trustpilot site. The defences filed to the action included the defences of honest opinion and public interest, which the claimant sought to strike out, and truth, which the claimant sought summary judgement on.
Following the scheduling of electronic proceedings for the action, the defendant emailed the court to say: “Going through litigation is just another attempt at getting more money from me without giving anything of service in return and all the hallmarks of a scam solicitor.” In a further message, he went on to say that he would not attend the hearing as he did not wish to give it any “credence or legitimacy”.
In the absence of the defendant, it was submitted by the claimant that the defence of honest opinion could not succeed where the words used, in this case “scam solicitor”, conveyed an allegation of fraud. Further, the defence showed no real prospect of establishing that the review was in the public interest, and it was clearly untrue.
A witness led by the claimant, an employee of the firm named as Tessa Rhodes, spoke to the firm being a reputable firm with no published Solicitors Regulation Authority decisions against it. It was submitted that it was inconceivable that the Claimant could be a scam firm or trading fraudulently and have such an unblemished record.
Absence of credible material
In his judgment, Master Cook said of the defence of honest opinion: “[The claimant] submits that the allegation of dishonesty made that the defendant is that it is ‘a scam solicitor’, has the plain meaning that the claimant is dishonest and fraudulent. The defendant seeks to present this as an opinion. [The claimant] argues this is impermissible, the defendant is putting forward the claimant’s dishonesty as a matter of fact and cannot simply say by way of defence ‘this is my opinion’.”
He continued: “In the circumstances I accept the law is as stated in Wasserman v Freilich (2016) and am satisfied [this] submission is correct, with the result the defence of honest opinion should be struck out.”
Moving on to public interest, he said: “The defendant makes it clear in his defence he sought money as a price for removing the review. In my judgment I agree with [the] submission that this demand wholly undermines the defence of public interest. Also it was apparent that the defendant made no attempt to engage in the claimant’s dispute resolution process. A complaint should always be the first stage in resolving any issues of customer satisfaction.”
In addressing the application for summary judgement on the defence of truth, Master Cook said: “I recognise that in the context of an application for summary judgment I must not conduct a mini-trial but it seems to me the Defendant’s allegations are so bold that in the complete absence of any credible material to support them I can conclude there is no real prospect of them succeeding at trial.”
He concluded: “The defence is fanciful and it cannot be proportionate for the matter to proceed to a full trial. I am satisfied that I should strike out the defence of honest opinion.”
Clear tendency to put people off
Following the strike out judgment, the defendant failed to comply with a court order requiring him to serve an amended defence. Judgment for the claimant was pronounced thereafter. At a remedies hearing in January 2021, the court heard from Ms Rhodes that the number of weekly enquiries to the firm dropped markedly in the 5 weeks following the posting of the review.
Addressing the overall effect of the review, Master Cook said: “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.”
For these reasons, the defendant was ordered to pay the claimant the sum of £25,000 in general damages. Due to the unlikeliness that the defendant would remove the review himself, Trustpilot, which did not appear at any stage in the action, was ordered under section 13 of the Defamation Act 2013 to do so.
© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021