In law, people have a free-standing right to their good name and reputation in the community. This is particularly important for people who occupy positions of trust, such as teachers, lawyers, doctors, and politicians. When false words are written or spoken that damage someone’s reputation, that person can sue the speaker or author of those false statements in defamation (sometimes referred to as “defamation of character”) to recover damages.
Defamation can either be in writing (libel) or by way of spoken words (slander). In order for a statement to be defamatory, the defamed party (plaintiff) must prove that:
- The words about them would tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person;
- The words referred to the plaintiff; and
- Words were communicated to at least one other person.
In these cases, the words are deemed false, and the plaintiff does not have to show that the defaming party (defendant) intended to do them harm.
Once the plaintiff has made out a case for defamation, the defendant must put forward a viable defence to escape liability. To successfully defend your interests, your defamation lawyer may put forward a number of possible legal defences, such as:
- Justification or “truth”: If the defendant proves that the words are true, then the words are not defamatory, and the action will be dismissed;
- Qualified privilege: Where there is a special relationship characterized by a duty to communicate the information and a reciprocal interest in receiving it (for example, where a patient complains to the College of Physicians and Surgeons alleging misconduct on the part of a doctor);
- Fair comment: Where the comments are on a matter of public interest, based on facts, and are recognizable as a comment (i.e. opinion); and
- Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP): Where the Court finds that the purpose of the lawsuit is to stifle public discourse and suppress public debate on matters of public interest, the Court can dismiss the action.
Defamation law is complex, technical, and at times antiquated. If you are served with a lawsuit or are considering a lawsuit in defamation, there are a variety of notice and limitation deadlines that can affect your rights. It is important not to delay in seeking legal advice. Please free to contact Nigel McKechnie or Scott McLean to discuss your defamation matter in detail.