This guide contains the first three template letters that our expert partners at Wilkes recommend you use as the basis for handling untrue statements that have been made against you, as well as a fourth template letter that you can use if you decide to initiate formal legal action against the statement-maker.
The templates are a great starting point for you to adapt as needed, but they're not a substitute for taking advice.
Before we get to the templates, it's worth covering a few points on handling untrue statements.
How can the law help protect the victims of untrue statements?
There are two types of legally actionable untrue statement:
1. Untrue written statements – called ‘libel’ (technically covering more enduring forms of publication, like press reports, other print or online statements); and
2. Untrue verbal statements – called ‘slander’ (technically covering more transient statements, such as spoken words or even gestures).
Whether a statement comes in written or verbal format, (i.e. it is libellous or slanderous), it falls under the general law of defamation.
A defamatory statement is one that causes, or is likely to cause, damage to the reputation of the person/business on that it targets.
It's not easy to prove to a level where compensation can be awarded
The legal measure of whether something is defamatory or not is whether, in the eyes of a court, the statement would ‘lower’ the person/business targeted ‘in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally’.
This essentially means that the average person on the street would need to draw damaging negative impressions about that person/business, based on what they have read or heard.
The threshold for bringing a court action against someone for defamation is a high one.
You have to prove that:
- the statement did or would cause ‘serious harm to the reputation’ of the targeted person or business,
- in the case of a business: this translates to that business being able to evidence that it’s suffered serious financial loss as a direct consequence of the damaging statement.
There's also a type of claim known as ‘malicious falsehood’, which applies where a person maliciously publishes false statements about you or your business and that causes you loss – usually a loss of business.
This claim has a lot in common with defamation, but there are subtle differences. In some ways, it can be a little easier to prove than defamation, but it’s more restrictive in the sums that can be claimed as compensation.
So, while it can be helpful to take legal advice where an untrue statement has been made about you, legal or court action (and threats relating to them) should always be a last resort and reserved for those untrue statements that really are hugely damaging.
Be very careful you don't make a defamation problem worse
There's another key reason to tread with care here too. While not always the case, (since costly injunctions – court emergency 'gagging' orders – can be obtained in some cases and are often conducted in private), court actions generally play out in open court. That means they're fair game for the press, your competition, universities and students looking for case studies, etc.
So, anything said about you that is reputationally damaging is something that you'll need to manage carefully - to prevent your own actions from causing even greater and far more long-lasting harm to your business.
Invariably, aggressive engagement with someone who has made a libellous or slanderous statement about you can in fact 'fan the flames' of the matter, to a point where the statement ends up blown out of proportion, and ultimately attracts a lot more attention for far longer than it would had it been calmly, quietly and non-aggressively handled.
In some cases, you may even choose to ignore such statements altogether. Or, if it’s a disgruntled customer (often the case with untrue/angry rants on social media or in discussion forums), you may prefer to engage in a much more constructive and positive customer relations exercise.
Other methods that may be appropriate for you to consider, where, for example, it is the employee of a business that has made the remarks about you, is to write to both the employee and the business, with the inference that this could even be a disciplinary matter for that business, where its employees are acting recklessly or irresponsibly, and potentially damaging the reputation of the employer business also.
Where can you find out more about defamation?
For more background on the legal position relating to defamation, take a look at our guide to defamation.
If you’re in any doubt about how to handle untrue statements made about you or your business, our pay-as-you-go Speak To an Adviser service is ideally positioned to help you. Farillio’s expert partners are very well-qualified to support you in these circumstances.
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