Social Media Blamed As Defamation Cases Almost Treble In Three Years

Social media disputes have contributed to a dramatic increase in the amount of defamation cases brought before the courts.

Analysis of official figures by one of Britain’s leading media law firms has revealed that the number of defamation claims has almost trebled since 2016.

Laura Wilkinson, an Associate Solicitor at JMW Solicitors, suggested that many were due to people simply not realising the potential consequences of their posts.

She added that the total might have been even higher but for legislative changes which “raised the threshold” people need to meet in order to proceed with defamation cases.

“In my opinion, there can be little doubt that social media users are fuelling the increase in defamation claims.

“In previous generations, the majority of defamation disputes would have involved mainstream media.

“However, everyone with a social media account is now effectively a publisher, albeit without the kind of legal checks and controls which are integral to more traditional print and broadcast outlets.

“That means there is no filter to prevent defamatory comment making its way before a global audience in seconds, with all of the complications and problems that can create.

“Myself and my colleagues have seen the number of complaints arising from statements published on various social media channels increasing in the last year or two.

“Although most people just want to ensure that negative posts are removed, there are others who feel that the impact to their reputations is so great that they wish to take the matter further and seek damages.”

Ms Wilkinson’s comments follow JMW’s research of data published by the Ministry of Justice which showed that the number of defamation cases handled by the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court had risen from 112 in 2016 to 323 last year.

The figures revealed that almost one-third (96) of claims last year were worth more than £50,000.

Although the number of cases involving damages demands between £15,000 and £50,000 has doubled since 2016, the proportion in which the compensation sought was unspecified increased from 10 to 145 during the same period.

Ms Wilkinson described how the number of defamation cases dealt with by JMW since 2018 had risen by 90 per cent and featured all of the main social media platforms.

She said that the firm had acted for a number of businesses targeted by “demonstrably unfair” reviews and other online publications as well as individuals who had been subject to smear and harassment campaigns on social media.

Ms Wilkinson pointed out that the rapid increase in High Court defamation court cases had reversed an initial decline in such proceedings following the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013.

The 2013 Act required claimants to prove that statements complained about have caused or are likely to cause “serious harm” to their reputations, while businesses need to demonstrate “serious financial loss”.

Ms Wilkinson stated that Act had “raised the bar” for complainants.

As a result, the number of defamation cases reaching the High Court halved in the two years after the legislation came into force but Ms Wilkinson said the Ministry of Justice figures illustrated how case numbers had since “bounced back”.

“Even though the Defamation Act arguably made it more difficult for people to challenge comments made about them through the courts, the volume of negative remarks on social media has certainly prompted more people to take action.

“It will be interesting to see whether that upward trend is halted by recent developments, including a ruling last year by the Supreme Court which made clear that claimants should demonstrate exactly how defamatory comments have impacted on their reputations or their revenues.

“There are, however, always going to be individuals who are so aggrieved about what has been said that they remain intent on taking action no matter the financial and legal obstacles which they face. After all, our reputations will always be important in life and business.

“If we add to that the fact that there has been so much remote, digital communication since the country went into lockdown and an equally considerable volume of activity on social media, I would not be surprised if we see a further rise in defamation cases in the near future.”

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