I always tell my clients that there is a defence of “fair comment” to claims of defamation of character. In other words, if you say something nasty but true about somebody, then it may have been mean-spirited of you to have said it, but at least the other party cannot sue you for defamation.
The High Court case of Umeyor v Nwakamma (Rev 1) (2015) EWHC 2980 (QB) of 16th October 2015 is a salutary lesson, that for the defence of “fair comment” to work, it is not only insufficient for you to have said what you said believing it to have been true; it may even be insufficient for it actually to have been true…….There needs to have been good evidence in support of your belief (true or otherwise) at the time the allegedly defamatory statements were made, in order for the defence of “fair comment” to bite.
In this case, Mr Umeyor, appealed against being removed from his position as president of an unincorporated association. By way of a reply to this appeal, the treasurer of the association, Mr Nwakamma, sent out a notice to the key association members, in which he said that Mr Umeyor had provided “dodgy receipts” for money and “forged” receipts, in connection with a gift of money to the association, which the former president said he had been asked to donate to a medical mission in Nigeria.
The court agreed that even if the documents had not been forgeries, strong suspicions arose that Mr Umeyor may have been involved in money laundering or some other form of nefarious activity….. but the fact remained that Mr Nwakamma had not taken any evidentiary steps to verify that his statements were true prior to making them, and since the statements had been extremely harmful to Mr Umeyor’s reputation, they were defamatory, and Mr Nwakamma was required to pay Mr Umeyor £2000 by way of compensation.
Lessons learned: always check your facts before making allegations, which are reasonably likely to be harmful to someone’s reputation.