Dealing with online abuse
There has been a marked increase in the number of defamation cases brought before the courts recently, many of which can be attributed to the growing use of social media. Here Cripps lawyers Alex Davies, head of family law, and defamation specialist Will Charlesworth, explain how to deal with the issue if you feel you are affected.
The end of a relationship can be the lowest part of life and it often brings out the worst in people. The internet age has brought new ways to express anger and resentment in those situations, the effects of which can be deep and long lasting.
The 17th century playwright, William Congreve, had it right when he said “heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned”. How many books or films can you name about breaking up? How many songs can you sing about lost love?
“Soon after Facebook was launched in the UK, it started to feature in my caseload,” said Alex. “I well remember my first harassment case involving highly offensive and disturbing content being posted on my client’s Facebook wall. It was 2008 and the evidence ran to over a thousand pages. In those days there was only one way (that we knew of) to put a stop to it, so we duly obtained a non-molestation injunction against the perpetrator. The posts carried on and the court was asked to commit the perpetrator to prison.”
The world has moved on in the last ten years. Facebook, and hundreds of other social media sites, have opened up a world of possibilities – some for good, some for bad. It would be impossible for our courts to handle the volume of claims that would result if every single case of online harassment were to be litigated over. Many people either close down their online accounts or simply ignore it in the hope it will go away. So, what are the alternatives? How can you put a stop to online harassment from an ex-partner or spouse?
The good news is that there are solutions out there that do not have to break the bank with legal fees. At Cripps we have seen a dramatic increase in enquiries from people complaining of online harassment and often we are able to deal with it using defamation or privacy law.
Defamation is a false statement of fact that harms a person’s reputation. It causes serious harm by, for example, exposing that person to hatred, ridicule, or contempt. There are two types of defamation – libel, which typically involves “lasting” forms of publication and slander, which includes spoken words or gestures.
The law requires that a letter of claim is sent before a defamation case is started. There is no “one size fits all” letter. A letter of claim must be carefully written to ensure that it includes relevant information and demands the appropriate remedies, which can include
- A takedown and retraction;
- An enforceable promise not to repeat the same or similar comments;
- Payment of compensation; and
- An apology.
Often a well written letter can resolve the situation. In addition, a take-down request can be made to the social media platform itself. Reporting functions are available on the main platforms and many of our clients ask us to deal with them on their behalf.
If warnings don’t work, it might be necessary to start a defamation case and the Court Service has reported an increase in such cases in recent years.
In some circumstances, it may be possible to send a Take Down Notice to the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Regulations now in force provide that an ISP may be held liable itself unless procedures are properly followed and timescales met.
Reputational damage may also be suffered through public disclosure of personal information, such as family photos or intimate secrets. This may lead to claims for breach of privacy or confidentiality which can be considered in addition, or as an alternative, to a defamation claim.
So, if you are suffering from online harassment, defamation or an embarrassing disclosure, our top tips are –
- Don’t delay. Often your case will be weakened if you don’t act fast;
- Secure your evidence. Take screenshots of offending material and keep as much detail as possible, including the date, time and location of posts on social media or websites.
- Take legal advice. It doesn’t have to cost the earth. At Cripps we offer fixed fees for most of our services relating to problems online.
For more information or an informal chat, please contact Alex Davies on +44 (0)1892 506 326 or Will Charlesworth on +44(0)1892 506 004.