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This information only applies in England and Wales.

Defamation occurs when something is said or written about someone which is untrue and damages their reputation. In certain cases, it may be possible to bring legal action against those responsible for defamatory statements or comments.

Although there is no single definition of what a defamatory statement is, a defamatory statement made against someone is one which is untrue and has one or more of the following effects:

  • lowers them in the estimation of 'right-thinking' members of society generally;
  • disparages them in their business, trade, office or profession;
  • exposes them to hatred, ridicule or contempt; or
  • causes them to be shunned or avoided.

Whether the words are defamatory depends on the precise words used. The words are judged by the standards of society generally at the time the defamatory statement or publication was made.

Under the Defamation Act 2013, a new requirement of 'serious harm' was introduced. This means that it is necessary to establish that the defamatory statement must have caused (or would be likely to cause) serious harm to the claimant.

Serious harm to the reputation of a business or company can only be proven if the defamatory statement caused serious financial loss.

Defamation is split into two different branches: libel and slander.

Libel is the publication of a defamatory statement in written or permanent form. This could be an email, blog, tweet, text or WhatsApp message, newspaper article, TV or radio broadcast, video clip uploaded to the internet or simply an old-fashioned hand written letter.

Slander is concerned with non-permanent forms of expression, such as spoken statements or gestures, which include a defamatory accusation. This could be a disparaging remark made in public or a comment made in private which is later reported.

Individuals, businesses and other legal entities can lodge a claim for libel or slander, but only if they believe the defamatory statement is about them. Claims cannot be brought by central or local government, unincorporated associations or on behalf of dead people.

In order to bring a claim for defamation, the individual or business will need to prove:

  • that the statement was defamatory
  • that it referred to them (ie they are named or they can be identified from the information)
  • that the defamatory statement was published (ie communicated to a third party)

A claimant will also need to bring an action for defamation within one year from the date the defamatory material was published. The court will only accept claims after one year if they think it would be fair to do so.

Defamation is a very complex area of law and cases can take a year or more to complete. Before going to court, it is necessary to follow procedures specified under the Defamation Pre-Action Protocol. Ask a lawyer who will be able to discuss the merits of your potential claim and guide you through the legal hurdles.

The main defences to a defamation claim are:

  • truth/justification - if the statement is true, it will not be considered defamatory, no matter how damaging it is
  • honest opinion (previously fair comment) - the statement must (i) be an expression of opinion, (ii) indicate the basis of the opinion, and (iii) the opinion must be one that could have been held by an honest person in possession of the relevant facts at the time
  • public interest - if the statement was published because this was reasonably believed at the time to be in the public interest
  • privilege - certain situations in which an otherwise defamatory statement is made, will preclude claims from being brought - eg during parliamentary debates or judicial proceedings
  • consent - if the individual consented to the publication of the defamatory statements or accepted an apology, then they would not be allowed to bring an action

Other than the individual or organisation who initially made a defamatory statement (ie the author), the 'primary publishers' of the statement who can be sued include the editor and commercial publisher. In certain cases, secondary publishers such as booksellers, printers and website operators can also potentially face legal action.

Website operators have a specific defence to defamation claims under the Defamation Act 2013, but only if they follow certain processes. However, the question of liability for website content - particularly in the case of companies such as Facebook which hold themselves out as platforms rather than publishers - is a hot topic of debate, so this situation may change.