A disgruntled client who posted unsubstantiated defamatory claims about a law firm on a review website has been ordered to pay £25,000 in damages.
Giving summary judgment in Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth, Master David Cook said that a ‘substantial’ number of clients were put off after Philip James Waymouth wrote on the Trustpilot website that his experience had been ‘A total waste of money another scam solicitor’ [sic].
The national firm brought proceedings for libel and sought general damages limited to £25,000 and special damages of £300 per day to cover the drop-off in work. The firm also asked for an order to remove the defamatory words from Trustpilot.
The court heard that the firm had been trading since 2014 and was in good standing, with no criticism by the regulator of any dishonest or fraudulent behaviour. Waymouth had made his public complaint after instructing the firm on a £200 fixed fee over a dispute concerning the enforcement of a court order, but never fully articulated the reason for his dissatisfaction and did not engage with the firm’s complaints procedure.
The firm had applied to strike out certain parts of Waymouth’s defence to the libel claim. He did not appear at the application hearing, having previously set out defences of honest opinion and public interest.
Master Cook said the defence was ‘fanciful’ and it was not appropriate for the matter to proceed to full trial, and he entered summary judgement for the firm.
Tessa Rhodes, a solicitor with Summerfield Browne, told the court that in the five weeks following the online review the number of weekly enquiries fell from 50-60 to 30-40. The firm has since encouraged existing and past clients to leave positive reviews, and there has been a ‘slow increase’ in work.
Master Cook said: ‘There is supportive evidence that the number of enquiries fell dramatically after the review was posted. Given the manner in which the claimant conducts its business I conclude that a substantial number of potential clients were put off.’
He awarded £25,000 in general damages but found the special damages claim was not made out. Waymouth must also pay costs on the indemnity basis and the review must be removed.