Social media, acrimonious splits and defamation

It is a curious aspect of modern life, that couples who split up acrimoniously, can then conduct vicious online campaigns against each other that tend to leave the recipients of these messages slightly bemused, unsure who to believe. And the parties at loggerheads. 

One such case found its way to the High Court last month (June 2022). Robert Lee, a businessman in Surrey had had a relationship with a teacher, Vanessa Brown.. This began while Mr Lee was living with his wife. He separated from his wife in 2016 and he then lived with Ms Brown until the beginning of 2020 when they separated. As the judgement says: “Their relations, then and since, have been highly acrimonious. Each accuses the other of abusive conduct”.

Mr Lee decided to issue proceedings for defamation. He claimed that Ms Brown had conducted a smear campaign against him. 

There were apparently some 2,500 posts on Twitter, Facebook posts by Ms Brown. (although the court didn’t know precisely how many people would have seen these posts) and various other postings. 

One of the odder aspects of the allegations is that they had both been members of Cobham rugby club. Ms Brown contacted the club formally to ask for his membership to be revoked. He claimed it was a “troublesome ex girlfriend” and the club decided it was a private matter and they were taking a neutral stance. I think this is the way the world deals with these things. 

In terms of the law, defamation needs to cause “serious harm” to one’s reputation. It’s difficult to prove “serious” harm, and you need lots of evidence, evidence which it is apparent from the judgment Mr Lee did not have. He was able to say that he had lost work, which he thought was attributable to the fallout from this dispute but he wasn’t able to prove it. Defamation is odd in that you need witnesses to say that they actually thought less of you as a consequence of these postings and that you had changed your view of someone to the extent the impact on them was serious. 

The Judge’s conclusion was “the burden was entirely on Mr Lee to persuade me that, on the balance of probabilities, each of the publications of which he complains has caused or was likely to cause serious harm to his reputation. …I am not satisfied that he has discharged that burden in respect of any of these publications. That does not mean I have found he has suffered no serious reputational harm. It means he has not sufficiently established, by the legal procedures and tests to which he must conform, that he has.” 

Interestingly, the Judge made it clear that her judgment had nothing to say about the truth or falsity of Ms Brown’s allegations and expressed no view about either party’s conduct. 

One final note is that Ms Brown apparently had an unresolved counterclaim in assault, battery and harassment which the judge transferred to the County Court for resolution. 

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