A man who branded a Leicester law firm as "another scam solicitor" on review website Trustpilot has been ordered to pay it £28,500 in libel damages and legal costs.
Philip Waymouth not only libelled his former solicitors after receiving what he felt to be unsatisfactory legal advice but also didn't get legal representation to defend the libel lawsuit, as the High Court recounted in a judgment this week.
"The Defendant was involved in a dispute concerning the enforcement of a court order," explained Master David Cook, the judge in the case. "He sought out the Claimant after an internet search, signed their standard terms and conditions after which the Defendant gave him advice for a fixed fee of £200. It seems that for some reason, which he has never fully articulated, the Defendant was dissatisfied with the advice he was given."
After receiving the legal advice from Summerfield Browne Ltd, Waymouth was not a happy bunny – and made his feelings known via this Trustpilot review:
A total waste of money another scam solicitor
Stacey mills left the company half way through my assessment and the replacement was useless. I paid upfront for a legal assessment of my case, but what I got was just the information I sent them, reworded and sent back to me. No new information or how to proceed or what the law says or indeed the implications of what was done. I Just got their false assumptions, full of errors showing a lack of understanding for the situation and the law. Once they have your money they are totally apathetic towards you. You will learn more from forums, you tube and the Citizens advice website about your case, for free
Unsurprisingly, Summerfield Browne sued Waymouth for £25,000. More surprising was that the man did not retain any lawyers to fight the case for him, instead telling the High Court by email:
This entire situation is of their own creation, they deceived me into believing they would provide an assessment to the value of £200 +vat, they did not provide anything of value - its a dictionary definition of the word Scam. Summerfield Browne made no attempt to negotiate out of court and refused to respond to my offers on three occasions. They refused to discuss my pre court offer of withdrawing my opinion should they refund my £200 +vat. They are suing for personal gain… Going through litigation is just another attempt at getting more money from me without giving anything of service in return and all the hallmarks of a scam solicitor.
Master Cook ruled that Waymouth was not entitled to defend himself on the basis of having posted his honest opinion on Trustpilot, citing a 2016 High Court case where a judge ruled that calling someone dishonest, in libel law, "will usually fall fairly and squarely on the side of fact rather than opinion" regardless of what is actually said.
A safeguard exists in libel law called serious harm. If you are accused of libelling somebody, you can argue that your statement didn't cause them serious harm and so isn't actionable. Courts, however, set the bar very low for companies claiming they had been libelled. For a company, "serious harm" merely means suffering a financial loss, however small.
Solicitor Tessa Rhodes told the court that the number of enquiries Summerfield Browne received fell from "50 to 60 per week to 30 to 40 per week" in the five weeks after Waymouth posted on Trustpilot.
"I conclude that a substantial number of potential clients were put off and that there has therefore been a financially damaging impact for a period of at least three to four months," said the judge, adding: "I am not in a position on the basis of the evidence before me to be any more precise and I do not think that any deeper or wider enquiry into the financial loss caused by the Defendant would be proportionate given the cap on damages sought."
The financial damages sought were £25,000 plus £12,600 in so-called "special damages".
Summerfield Browne's barrister, SJ Bradshaw, compared Waymouth's Trustpilot review with how right-wing personality Katie Hopkins libelled cook Jack Monroe in 2017 in a series of Twitter posts. Hopkins falsely accused Monroe of supporting vandals who desecrated the Cenotaph war memorial, having mixed her up with a Guardian columnist.
"In my judgment it is beyond any dispute that the words complained of had a clear tendency to put people off dealing with the Claimant firm," thundered Master Cook. "It is a serious matter to accuse a solicitors firm of dishonesty and any such allegation is likely to deter those who are unfamiliar with the firm from using its services."
Master Cook ordered Waymouth to pay Summerfield Browne £25,000 in damages and rejected its claim for special damages. He did, however, order Waymouth to pay a further £3,450 in legal costs.
In part, Waymouth lost because he didn't turn up to the trial and didn't engage meaningfully with the legal process or, seemingly, get proper legal advice. Had he done so, the outcome might not have been as clear-cut.
Trustpilot was ordered by the court to delete Waymouth's post, in accordance with section 13 of the Defamation Act 2013. ®