Employers pilloried by former workers on the internet could find it harder to fight back in future, according to Sheffield lawyer Ian Hemingway.
Mr Hemmingway, the former head of defamation at Irwin Mitchell, who now runs commercial litigation and media law specialists Hemingways Solicitors, says changes proposed in the Government’s new Defamation Bill will make it harder to sue.
“In the past, it was assumed that if something was posted on the internet, with a potential audience of millions, then there was automatically a claim which could be pursued,” says Mr Hemmingway.
“Recent cases have changed that position, by striking out claims where only a few people have actually viewed the website, but the new proposal is going to prove a real barrier to pursuing claims based on these sorts of statements.
“I have acted for a number of commercial clients in Sheffield where they have been defamed by employees or ex-employees on Facebook, the Sheffield Forum website or chatrooms, and I would now have to advise clients to consider very carefully before bringing a claim, or even threatening to bring a claim, in relation to those sorts of cases.
“This means that there may need to be a bit of a cultural shift in the way in which businesses deal with this sort of criticism, which is often unwarranted, and there will need to be more of an emphasis on reputation management rather than seeking to wield the big stick to use court proceedings to keep people quiet.”
Mr Hemmingway says larger companies, with a substantial number of relatively low paid employees and fairly high staff turnover rates are those most at risk of having their reputations blackened by disgruntled former employees.
“The reputation or goodwill of a company can often be one of its most significant assets, and particularly during a recession, any dip in turnover due to potential customers being persuaded to take their business elsewhere could be disastrous,” says Mr Hemmingway.
“The most important thing to remember if your business is attacked in this way is to deal with the issue as quickly as possible, partly to limit the damage, but also because the court requires a prompt response if it becomes necessary to issue legal proceedings.”