Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Defamation Lesson One

During University, I did what many law students did and spent some weeks over the summer as a vacation scheme student (read, intern) at London law firms. At one firm, I sat in the Litigation department for a while. One job I got to do was to help prepare a note on defamation for a rather large corporate client of theirs.
That was quite a good job to get my teeth into. Defamation is easy enough and controversial enough to make excellent law student fodder. It is all about saying unpleasant and untrue things about other people which may lower that person in the eyes of others. Classic cases include Berkoff, where a critic called an actor ugly; and Yousoupoff, where a Russian princess was defamed by a film maker by suggesting she’d been raped by Rasputin. A defamer is liable in ‘tort’ for damages.
My note was really rather good. Another intern was helping, and between us, we had a lovely, cogent and full explanation of defamation, as well as of the related tort of malicious falsehood and some good stuff on ‘negligently made statements’.

Sadly, it was a bit pointless. The client (Fyodor Ltd) wanted to know what it could do about one of their customers, who had said nasty things about them in the press, as to how Fyodor had behaved towards them. The rub was that it was all true. And when it’s true, it’s not defamation.
I don’t know how much Fyodor paid for that note. I don’t know if they minded that the note was prepared by students. And I can’t be certain that whoever asked for the note to be prepared already knew the law, and just wanted an external advisor to tell management the best way to avoid bad press was by being good (Defamation Lesson One). But I wouldn’t be surprised.

Whatever, it’s an example of a company doing some naughty thing, and paying to find out there was nothing they could do to stop the wronged party talking about it.
It seems to me that in this story, only the lawyers won.

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