A disgruntled client who left a bad review on a national web review site was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay £25,000 damages along with costs.
The amount awarded in damages could have been much higher, had it not been limited by the solicitors to that sum.
The case – Summerfield Brown Limited v Waymouth– addresses the issue of “revenge reviews” , which has long been a problem for solicitors who have found difficulty in dealing with web review sites such as Trust Pilot or Google Review, and particularly the proliferation of “phantom clients” who cannot be traced on those sites, or “serial complainers”. Often the complaints revolve around mundane matters such as failing to return a call.
Importantly, the web review site – in that case Trust Pilot- was also ordered to remove the defamatory statement, and the case opens up the potential for review sites to be sued for defamation in addition to the party who wrote the review.
The judgment sent a strong message to people that making comments about your solicitor on the internet is not the sensible way to air a complaint. The Judge referred to the fact that the defendant had failed to use sensible means to resolve any issues, such as following a complaints procedure.
“The position is likely to be worse for any party who was not a client of a legal firm, but chose to make statements on a website review site” said Chris Christofi, addressing the phenomenon of non-client complaints on such websites.
“And nor will the complainant be spared because their matter was low value. The Summerfield Brown case revolved around a matter where the total fee paid to the solicitors was just £200, which demonstrates that the amount in issue does not have any bearing on the amount awarded in damages”.
The message to those thinking about doing such a thing is “don’t” said Chris. “Don’t go defaming them on a review site”. Contact them to discuss any issues” he said . As for the unfortunate reviewer, Chris said ” I am sure that the next step for the solicitors will be to enforce the judgment against the client, most likely by way of bankruptcy proceedings” said Chris, “…which means, even if they hate their solicitor, people really need to stop and think whether its really worth their while just to get back at their solicitor”.
The matter also raises the issue of the real value of Review sites for professionals. “Unfortunately you can’t compare some service industry work with retail which is what these sites really are about. It’s not like reviewing a kettle for instance, which is what consumerism is trying to do with legal services. If a kettle goes wrong there is an obvious fault, but there are many reasons you may not like your solicitor or fall out with them, and they are mostly emotive.
“Of course there are many reviews which falsely proclaim excellence of service – i.e they are made up anyway”, said Chris.
In the meantime solicitors up and down the country will be checking over their reviews in the hope of a cash bonanza.