10 things you should know about … libel

22 Mar 2012
Alasdair Taylor

This short article explains the key points of libel law – those which should be familiar to every webmaster. Webmasters need to know about libel law because material published on a website can give rise to libel claims.

(1) What is defamatory?

Defamation is all about reputation, and in particular about statements which damage others’ reputations. The English courts have not settled upon a single test for determining whether a statement is defamatory. Examples of the formulations used to define a “defamatory imputation” include:

  • an imputation which is likely to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking
  • an imputation which injures a person’s reputation by exposing him to hatred, contempt
    or ridicule;
  • an imputation which tends to make a person be shunned or avoided.

A statement that a person is an adulterer, a gold-digger or a drunkard may be defamatory, as may an allegation of corruption, racism, disease, insanity or insolvency.

(2) Libel v slander

The law of libel is concerned with defamatory writings; whereas the law of slander is concerned with defamatory speech. There are some differences in the laws relating to slander and libel. It used to be thought that defamatory statements on a website would always be libellous rather than slanderous. However, the English courts have taken the view that some internet communications are more akin to speech than the traditional print, and that slander rather than libel should apply to those communications.  Nonetheless, the focus of this post is libel.

(3) Websites and “publication”

A defamatory statement is not actionable unless it is published. Unfortunately for webmasters, when libel lawyers say “published”, they mean communicated to one person (not including the person defamed). You can libel someone by writing about them on a personal blog, providing at least one person accesses the defamatory material.

That is not to say that a defamatory publication on your personal blog carries the same risk as a defamatory publication on, say, the BBC website. Libels on high-traffic sites are more likely to be discovered by the person attacked than libels on low-traffic sites. Also, potential libel claimants may let a libel pass if it hasn’t been widely disseminated – knowing that a court case would itself ensure the widest possible audience for the slur.

(4) Corporations and government

It is sometimes thought that you cannot libel a corporation. That is incorrect. A corporation has a reputation just like a natural person, and that reputation may be injured by a defamatory statement.

On the other hand, it is not possible to defame the government, or an arm of the government. You should still be careful about making allegations against government, as in many circumstances the allegations could be interpreted as allegations against a particular individual (who will be in a position to sue).

(5) Truth and fair comment

Two of the most important defences to a libel claim are justification and fair comment.

The defence of “justification” arises where the defendant in a libel action claims that the statements are true. One might expect that in these circumstances a claimant would be obliged to demonstrate the untruth of the defamatory statements – but that is not so. It is for the defendant who relies upon a justification defence to prove the truth of the libel. This is often easier said than done.

The defence of “fair comment” may be available to a defendant who can show that the defamatory statement amounted to an opinion which was honestly held and based up facts which were true.

There are a range of other defences which tend to apply in specific circumstances. The most important of these other defences is “qualified privilege”.

(6) Qualified privilege

There are three kinds of “qualified privilege”.

The first kind, sometimes called “classic common law qualified privilege”, protects disclosures in certain specific situations, but only where the person making the defamatory statement believes that it is true. For example, this kind of qualified privilege defence may protect statements made in an employee reference.

The second kind may be called “statutory qualified privilege”. This refers to a range of specific defences under the Defamation Act 1996 relating to the publication of fair and accurate reports of the proceedings of certain public bodies.

The third (and most interesting) kind is sometimes called “Reynolds-style qualified privilege”. This protects certain public interest stories published in the media, providing they adhere to the standards of responsible journalism.

(7) Liability of hosts

Website hosts may be liable for defamatory material created by someone else but which they host. However, there are special defences available to hosts under the Defamation Act 1996 and the E-commerce Regulations.

Under the Defamation Act 1996, a website host will have a defence to a claim for libel if he can show that (i) he was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement complained of, (ii) he took reasonable care in relation to its publication, and (iii) he did not know and had no reason to believe that what he did caused or contributed to the publication of the defamatory statement. The defence under the E-commerce Regulations is broader in that it covers not just defamation but also other kind of legal action; however it is shallower in that it does not provide a complete defence, but merely a defence against financial and criminal penalties.

(8) Damages

Damages in defamation actions are intended to compensate the claimant for distress and hurt feelings and for actual injury to reputation, and also to serve as an objective sign of vindication.

Unusually for civil cases, defamation cases are tried in front of a jury, not a judge sitting alone. In part as a result, damages awards have traditionally been rather high – often much higher than in personal injury claims. However, the Court of Appeal has the power to overrule excessive awards given by juries.

(9) England

“London is the libel capital of the World. American journalists dub it ‘a town named sue’ since its claimant-friendly environment attracts litigants unable or unwilling to take their chances under American or European defamation laws which afford better protection for media defendants”. (Robertson and Nicol, Media Law).

The English courts have been known to hear cases involving a foreign claimant and a foreign defendant, where the “publication” in England is marginal to the damage alleged.

(10) Risk assessment

The most difficult question when reviewing material for libel risks is not whether material is defamatory, but whether a potential claimant is really likely to bring proceedings.

Print publishers often have risky material reviewed by specialist lawyers before it is published. Similarly, it often makes sense for online publishers to invest in libel reviews rather than risk potentially ruinous litigation.

This is an updated version of a post first published on www.website-law.co.uk in March 2007


My comment is, I had a tape recorded. interview in October 2021 by my investigator and a lawyer. I didn’t hear anything from them until February 12, 2022, when I contact them. Thats when they told me that the recording in October wasn’t working properly, and they weren’t able to understand what I was saying. However, they never told me that until February 4 months later. They had submitted the transcript to the chief already without me seeing it or without them; letting me know that they weren’t able to understand what I was saying.

I was the subject of a common assault which was witnessed and taken up by the Police and The Perpatrator interviewed and warned about his future behaviour. Can I describe the incident and name the culprit on facebook

Hello i have a friend who belongs to an association who have a whatsapp group for members discussion. She posted a comment on the whatsapp group saying that a member has not paid her dues. The member retaliated and said she should withdraw the statement, but she refused to do so. Now a libel suit has been filed against her. (1) Please does such a comment amount to a libel, and (2) The association has an arbitration clause for dispute resolution. Can my friend bring an objection to the suit that the court lacks jurisdiction on this basis. (3) can a libel action be resolved by arbitration being a tort.

I have a sister that has used social media more than once (several) posting very very untrue posts about me , is this grounds for defamation? We are adults and this has gone on way to long.

A job application is unsuccessful and the applicant is sent a standard ‘turn-down’ letter (you know the drill, ‘thank you’ etc ‘standard of applicants was very high’ etc ‘wish you well in the future’ etc) BUT the letter ends with a sentence that says ‘please do not apply for any other jobs in the future which  may be of interest to you at this company’.

What could be the reason for including such a sentence and surely this is defamatory?

I told my friend that I think this contravenes equal opportunities law as how would they know that he wouldn’t be suitable for another job vacancy they might have in the future?

He is really stressing about this as he is worried they might be bad-mouthing him to other employers in the area.

Any info or advice on finding out the reason would be great.


I can see why such a statement might irritate the recipient – but I don’t think it carries a defamatory imputation.

Also, for a statement to be defamatory, it needs to be communicated to someone other than the person it concerns.

If the company concerned are “bad-mouthing” him to other employers, that’s different; but the letter isn’t on its own evidence of that.


I recently had my content stolen and used on Facebook without crediting me.  I contacted the offenders, and through a series of emails we exchanged on Facebook, I was unable to get them to cooperate with me.  I also reported it to Facebook, and finally the post was disabled by FB.  I have screen shots of the post explicitly showing that they did use my content and an email from FB informing me they removed the post. 

I am not interested in pursuing legal matters with them, as they are in India and I don’t want to hassle it. I do want to have a little fun though.  The emails are really funny, and I want to write a blog post about that and include the photos of the stolen content and a cut and paste of the entire email dialogue.  If I do this, could I put myself at risk for being sued for libel?  Also, can I publish the emails between us without it being a problem?

Thanks a bunch!  This post was one of the most informative I’ve found on the topic.

Thanks for your comment.

There may be a theoretical risk that you would infringe their copyright in their emails. Whether there is any risk of libel depends, I’m afraid, upon the specific contents of the blog post and email dialogue.

Of course, just because there is a theoretical risk doesn’t mean there is a real risk.

Hi there

My boss had some work carried out on his house but the work wasn’t completed properly. After months of arguments the case went to court where my boss won and the company should have repaid the money and compensation.  However, the company went into liquidation and now the director has set up another company giving the exact same service but there’s nothing my boss can do about it to get his money back. Apparently this is at least the second time the director of the company has done this.

My question is, can my boss set up a website which warns people about using this company and, in particular, the director? He has all the legal documents that he wants to post online so that no one else gets caught by this person. Would this be legal or could my boss get sued?

Thank you.

Whilst your boss’s wish to publicise this person’s activities is understandable, it is not possible to give blanket assurances that this sort of activity would not lead to legal action. As always, it depends upon the specifics of the publications.

Thank you very much for your kind detailed analysis of the situation. I am more than appreciative and thankful for the reply.

Best Regards.

Hi Sir, 3 months ago in March, I purchased a shoe online and the shoe was delivered in good condition. Hence, I gave a positive review. However, when I used the shoe about two weeks after arrival, parts of the sole was falling apart. I wanted to rewrite my review to caution other potential buyers since the shoe was a disappointment. Yet to realise they have stopped their business selling the specific type of shoe and thus, I could not find a way to get back to them. Yesterday, I got an email from the online portal that the seller is back into business. Hence in mind of writing a feedback to caution other buyers as well as possibly getting a compensation, I wrote a very straightforward negative feedback citing my experience and hope they would be responsible in replying me in the public inquiry box. Today, I got an reply. Even though they apologised and listed out various possible channels of reaching them three months back which truthfully i was not aware of, they have question my intention of writing a feedback after 3 long months. In addition, the seller stated that they are seeking legal advices as they felt threatened and defamed from my comments. My question would be by stating facts of the shoe being of “poor quality”, cautioning future buyers and saying that they would be” irresponsible” to ignore my feedback is it an act of defamation? Hope that you could advice and enlighten me. Thank you very much for your time.

We have had a recent ‘review’ from someone who tried to book our accommodation. Or terms are that a non-refundable deposit is taken. The guest in question subsequently cancelled and asked for a refund to which we kindly agreed if we re-let the accommodation; they thanked us. A while later they asked again, we said the same, yes, if we re-let we will give a refund. We then get, within days, a terrible ‘review’ on Tripadvisor. Stating that if we give them a refund they will remove the ‘review’ – surely this is blackmail? These people never stayed with us, but agreed to our terms when they booked. We said never mind the terms we will give you a refund if we re-let, which is exactly what they asked for. It’s nasty and spiteful and no doubt illegal. Are Tripadvisor liable for allowing this blackmail on their site?

I understand that this is not an uncommon situation. See:


Have you asked Tripadvisor to take down the review? That should be your first step. Tripadvisor say that they take this sort of thing seriously.

Even if you could get a UK court to rule that the review was defamatory and that Tripadvisor is liable, the US courts would not enforce that judgment. So to the extent that Tripadvisor’s assets are in the US, they may not be very concerned about UK libel claims.

For this reason, you may be better pursuing the person who wrote the review. In addition to any rights you may have in the law of defamation or malicious falsehood, you may be in a position to make a complaint to the police under the blackmail provisions of the Theft Act. An alternative would be to consider action under US law – I am not familiar with US law in this area.

In any case, this is a situation which warrants getting proper advice.

Several nurses texted false statements to each other and my employer. I was told, then let go. I feel it was false and libellous. I think they wanted to receive more hours for them. It worked. I was never told why they let me go by my employer. Just I not allowed back on the job. This agency has an independent contractor status, so I was not an employee. We pay our own taxes. Thank you, I am so hurt and damaged – more than one could ever know – besides loss of wages.

My husband has been accused (on a friend’s Facebook page) of miscounting votes at an AGC where he was a teller. The accuser is a director of the organisation which we belong to. He has named my husband in the post and finishes with a veiled threat. We have the published minutes of the AGC which has the number of votes counted for and against every vote that day, and which we believe proves my husband’s innocence. We have spoken to the accuser and asked for an equally public apology, he has apologised for offending us but not retracted the accusation or apologised for wrongly accusing my husband. Do we have a case for defamation and libel, especially in light of the result of Sally Bercow’s case involving Twitter today?

It sounds like you would have a reasonable prima facie case against the director. I suggest you consult a libel lawyer. You would want to be very confident that you could defeat a “justification” defence run by the director. A failure to do so could be very expensive, and could result in far worse reputational damage than the original accusation. Remember that the limitation period for defamation is only one year, and memories fade quickly, so if you are going to consult a lawyer you should do so asap.

Is it possible or reasonable to have someone contacted and given a cease and desist order before slander gets to far out of hand?

The gentleman I am dating now has an ex-wife who has always disliked me and said things. It has recently escalated to her daughter sharing these sentiments with others and the statements are completely false and have the potential to damage my reputation. I would like to stop this now before it goes any further.

Any thoughts or suggestions are welcome. 

Thanks again for helping me with this question – I have gone ahead with the blog. This is a very useful website.

Sorry to have a further question but regarding your point:

“There is however a prior question: is publishing the fact that a commissioning person or entity requires unpaid proposals even defamatory? (I don’t know the answer to this – it will depend upon context.)”

Please could you say if the context of the acoup website means that it would not be defamatory?

There’s a useful list of the kind of accusations that are defamatory here:


Would an accusation that an art commissioning entity requires unpaid proposals damage that entity’s reputation in a way that is comparable to the listed types of accusation? My feeling is probably not; to me the accusation doesn’t seem that serious. But it is possible that within the artist / artwork commissioning community such an approach is considered to be morally repugnant. You will know better than I. 

I expressed a very forthright opinion about someone to two other people.  The subject of my opinion hacked my e-mails and found the opinion and is now threatening to sue me for libel.  Can he do that?

Certainly he can threaten, and certainly if he has the resources he can sue. The question is whether he is likely to succeed if he sued.

A lawyer would need to know all the facts to make that assessment.

If I were in your position, I might point out to him that hacking into an email account is usually a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

FYI an unofficial consolidation of the CMA is published here:


I am making a campaigning website for public artists, to encourage commissioners to pay for proposals. When advertising commission opportunities, clients often ask for unpaid proposals rather than for CV and examples of previous projects. I want to have a blog where artists can post up examples of good practice but also flag up examples where the brief requires unpaid proposals, tight deadlines or unrealistic budgets. Could people keep things factual and post up  “A commission requiring unpaid proposals” next to a link to the commission brief, without the commissioner suing?

The relevant defence here is “justification”, rather than “fair comment”.

There is however a prior question: is publishing the fact that a commissioning person or entity requires unpaid proposals even defamatory? (I don’t know the answer to this – it will depend upon context.)

Even if it is defamatory, then a libel claim should be defensible if you can prove (not merely assert) that the substance of the allegation is true.

A valid defence doesn’t prevent a claimant from suing – rather, it prevents them from succeeding in court, thereby reducing the chances of them suing.

When the Defamation Act 2013 comes into force, your position (although not that of your users) here may be strengthened with the new “website operator” defence. See:


One interesting question here: would the publication be considered to constitute “a statement posted on the website”? A broad interpretation of “statement” would cover it, while a narrow one may not.

Thank you very much for your time and help on this, its much appreciated.  The site is a polite way of asking commissioners to reconsider their practice of asking artists for unpaid proposals, we want to encourage this by showing good examples. However being able show examples where unpaid proposals are required is obviously useful too. I will have approval of posts, and will make it clear to artists posting to keep it factual or I won’t approve it. However I guess there will be postings where artists complain about this unfair aspect of commissioning generally (but without a link to a specific commission brief). The blog is not up yet but the site is http://www.acoup.weebly.com where you can see the general context.


I recently started recieving mail from Bailiffs and Debt collection agencies for debts not belonging to me, after investigating my credit files there are linked addresses and a whole host of bad debt and CCJ’s that is nothing to do with me but another person or person’s with bad debt, this is very distressful, my credit rating has been affected awfully as I cannot re-mortgage or obtain credit if I wanted too. Worse still is my ability to possibly obtain SC security clearance for Nuclear and MOD contracts for possible employment. I have written and called the agencies they ignore my concerns, I feel the only why to get there attention is by court action. Is this classed as libel or defamatory under the data protection act where my crendentials are obviously being frowned upon by potential lenders. Any advice would be most welcome on what I can do.

PS Spoke to Information Commissioners Office not much help there they said write to my MP!!!!

Hi Paul. Thanks for your question.

Have you been through each of the agencies’ credit report correction mechanisms?  E.g.


I would be inclined to start looking seriously at court actions or regulatory complaints only once these procedures had been exhausted. (Although there is a 1 year limitation period on libel claims, so you should not delay too long.)

As regards the law, the potential data protection (fair processing) breach and the potential libellous publication are two quite separate causes of action.

Clearly, the “publication” (ie communication) of a false bad credit reference could be defamatory, and therefore could be actionable. Even if there is a defamatory communication, however, there may be a defence of “qualified privilege”. You would need a lawyer to assess this, based on all the information.

In you circumstances, I think the first thing I would do, after exhausting the credit report correction procedures, would be an information gathering exercise. As part of this, I would consider sending “subject access” requests to the relevant credit reference agencies, debt collectors and bailiffs. This should provide some information about exactly what has been communicated, when, and to whom.

I would then take this information to a suitable solicitor to advise on the next steps. Send me an email (via our contact form) if you would like the details of a suitable solicitor.


I am part responsible for the content on a blog which reiterated an accusation of bullying at a public meeting. We didn’t name either party, merely that “alleged bullying took place at the meeting”. We have since been threatened with libel by someone who was at the meeting and who has potentially been named elsewhere in regards to this.

Should we be worried?
Since it was a public meeting can we expect a defence of “fair comment on a matter of public interest” to have any relevance?


The reporting of a defamatory accusation may, of course, itself be defamatory.

The fact that you did not name the individual concerned doesn’t necessarily help you, if blog readers could nonetheless identify who you were talking about.

Whether you should be worried depends upon the details. You would need a proper legal review of the publication and the surrounding circumstances to get an idea of the risks.

As regards fair comment, I think an accusation of bullying is a factual allegation, not a comment at all in legal terms. Repetition/reporting does not it itself turn transform an imputation of fact into a comment. For a good summary of the mess that is the defence of fair comment, see:


EDIT: If it is a factual imputation rather than a comment, then the defence of justifiction rather than fair comment should be considered.

Another defence that might (but might not) be relevant is a Reynolds public interest defence. For a discussion of the current state of the Reynolds defence, see:


I write on a blog that details domestic abuse at the hands of an old boyfriend that has left me physically imparied years later. Can I share my stories? I’ve had other girlfriends who were also his victims come forward and share their stories as well. So this is a collective of abuse stories, where we do name him.

A libel claimant doesn’t have to show that the the libel is untrue; instead, the defendant has to prove the truth of the libel on the balance of probabilities. So a key question here is: could you prove the truth of what is published? If so, you should have a defence of justification.

You don’t necessarily need to prove that everything published is true, but you do have to prove the “sting” of the libel. E.g. If you accused someone of both disorderly conduct and murder, you might only need to provide proof of the murder to defend a libel claim. 

The problem I have is this. I sent a text message to a family member. The one who received the message was emotionally hurt. He said he will accuse me libel?

There’s not enough information to provide much guidance on this. Two points to bear in mind, though: a libel claim needs reputational damage, not mere emotional hurt; and the libel must be “published” to a third party.

I just wanted to say thank you for a post which I’ve referred to more than once since you posted it. It’s a really clear and helpful summary which answers the relevant questions. It’s also rather nice of you to have taken the time to respond to all the requests for advice. I am very grateful to you and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

My mobile phone account was subject to several fraudelent mobile phone updates over a period of several weeks. Despite my warnings to my provider, and even phoning the courier to delay delivery of an iPhone into London because it was a fraudulent order, they failed to act. Because I was out of a fixed term contract, I cancelled all of my financial dealings with them, who took it on themselves to bill me for the iPhone. They have now published, through credit reference agencies, a deframatory credit report. I think I have a good case for libel. Do you agree?

There are a lot of different issues raised by this scenario. The legal position will be affected by the terms of your contract with the provider, the interaction of that contract with consumer protection law, the events surrounding the fraudulent actions, and so on. Yes, reports to credit references agencies, and the distribution of those reports by credit reference agencies, can be actionable in defamation. On the face of it – yes, you may have a good claim. However, because of the complexity here, I don’t think it’s appropriate to try and provide guidance. I suggest you speak to a solicitor about this. Sorry not to be more helpful.

Hi, My attention has just been drawn to a review on the holiday accommodation finder TridAdvisor. I rent out an apartment, and receive reviews in the normal way. These are posted internationally. A recent review refers mainly to “me”. In my opinion the comments are abusive, inaccurate, and totally unfounded. They appear to contravene TripAdvisors own rules of content. I have contacted TripAdvisor, who told me that they do not remove reviews (they do, and have removed reviews of a personal nature).

I have objected in fairly strong terms to TripAdvisor, to no purpose.

Incidently, the individual who has posted this review, is not known to me and I have never spoken to him/her.

Can I pursue a case of defamation for a web based company, when I do not know who the individual is who has made these comments. Is the company at fault, the individual, or both?


Steve Walker

Hi Steve – thanks for your query.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the comments are actionable under English defamation law. I’ll also assume that TripAdvisor LLC, which publishes the site and is incorporated in Massachusetts, has no assets in the UK.

There’s an obvious enforcement problem here. Even if you could get a libel judgment from an English court, you would need to take that judgment to the US for enforcement. But – because of the free speech tradition in the US generally and the SPEECH Act in particular – enforcement of foreign libel judgments in the US is very difficult.

To pursue the individual, you would need to know who they are. Again, you would probably need to go to the US courts to get disclosure of information that might, eventually, allow you to identify the individual.

I’m not a US lawyer, and so cannot comment with any authority on the approach of the US courts to these sorts of issues; it seems to me that you need US law advice here, not English law advice.

Less drastic than threats of court action, you could also consider requesting that intermediaries (such as Google) remove any reproductions of the material that they are storing and re-publishing.

If this really matters to you, it is worth paying a lawyer for proper advice. A lawyer’s letter may lead to action from TripAdvisor. Also, without knowing all the circumstances, it’s not possible to do more than give vague and qualified guidance as above.

A friend of mine was drugged and raped. The incidents were filmed and the film has been circulated with the intention of saying that my friend is a prostitute. It is difficult to get hold of the film but people at her work have been shown the film and naturally think the worst of her. What should she do?

There’s a range of different legal wrongs, both civil and criminal, that could have been committed here. It is beyond my expertise and experience to suggest the best course of action in these circumstances. Your friend should obviously consider reporting the matter to the police, and also contacting one of the organisations that specialise in providing support to victims of sexual violence (e.g. http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/). Such an organisation should also be able to refer your friend to an appropriate solicitor to give specific advice on possible civil action.

What action should I be considering if someone has sent a mass email to others making a statement which by implication is casting me in a bad character? An incident happened but they have written about it in such a way that it has been totally miscontrued and leads others to think I am a bad person.

Sorry – I’ve just found your other excellent posts that address my question perfectly!  Thank you for this!

I’m looking to start a review website of tradespeople in my local area to encourage greater accountability and responsibilty.  Review contributors will not be able to publish to the site directly, and will first have to submit their independent reviews for moderation.  Are there any legal guidelines specific to this type of site to minimise or eradicate the risk of libellous statements being published?

As the publisher of a blog, you could in theory be held liable in respect of defamatory material posted by others on the blog.

There are two main approaches to dealing with this risk:

  • first, you can review all material before it is published, and refrain from publishing anything risky;
  • second, you can seek to take advantage of the provisions of Section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 and Regs 17-19 of the Ecommerce Regulations.

This second approach is the usual one, and typically involves a publisher doing the following sorts of things:

  • prohibiting the posting of defamatory and other unlawful content in the blog T&Cs;
  • providing an effective abuse notification procedure;
  • not systematically reviewing or editing content posted on the site; and
  • removing risky content promptly following notification of a problem.

I’m an IT administrator.  I have a friend who she filed a libel case, and she needs me, a network administrator, to explain the IT technicalities – basically what she needs is to know how to trace the IP address and location of the person who make libelous comment in a website. I have done that and traced its location, But the question is, how can I prove that my tracing of the IP address and location is reliable? I just made my search using a internet web search tracing tool?

For example, are you trying to demonstrate that the IP tracing is reliable to a court, and if so which court?

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