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When can you sue someone for defamation?

Defamation occurs when a person’s reputation has been threatened or damaged because an untrue statement about them has been communicated to a third party. The statement must be capable of lowering the person concerned in the estimation of ‘right thinking people’. An insult is not sufficient to be classed as defamation.

A person can be sued for two types of defamation: libel and slander. Anyone that intends to sue for libel or slander is strongly advised to seek legal advice. Specialist solicitors that handle these types of cases can assess the alleged incident and offer guidance to their clients on the likelihood of the court upholding any claim made.

Libel is defamation that exists in a permanent state. For example, the statement is broadcast on the television or radio, or published in a newspaper or magazine. Defamatory statements made on the internet are permanent in nature and will be considered as libel. In order to succeed in a libel claim, the claimant must show that the statement was untrue and capable of damaging their reputation. A solicitor can assist the claimant in obtaining evidence to support their claim.

Slander is defamation that is temporary in nature and not recorded. For example, an untrue statement made in speech to a third party is slander. In order to sue someone for slander, the claimant must show actual damage resulting from the statement. There are some exceptions where a claimant does not need to show actual damage.

For example, if the statement claims that the claimant has a contagious disease or has committed a crime, and this is untrue, then this would be considered slander. Solicitors acting for the claimant can assess the precise nature of the comments, and advise whether slander or defamation has actually taken place.

In defamation claims the onus is on the claimant to prove that their reputation has been damaged and that the statement is untrue. A person cannot be sued for defamation if they have a valid defence. Justification, or truth, is a valid defence and can be used where the statement is true, or partially true. Other defences include fair comment and privilege.

Lawyers acting for the claimant must be sure that they can prove defamation has taken place, and that the offending party does not have legal grounds on which to make the statements.

It is possible to sue people for defamation even if they did not make the false statement. If a person repeats, broadcasts or publishes the defamatory statement, they may also be sued for defamation. The same can apply to distributors of the defamatory statement. Legal advice should always be obtained first to ensure that legal grounds for the litigation are sound.

Defamation claims are notoriously difficult to prove and often involve very high costs. It is important to note that the period for bringing a defamation claim is one year after the statement was issued. This reflects the fact that in most defamation claims time is of the essence, and that the claimant’s objective is to limit the damage to their reputation and receive an apology as soon as possible.

Any claimant that wishes to bring a case of defamation is advised to contact a solicitor as soon as they are aware of the comments to assess the strength of the case they want to bring before a court.

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