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How to remove defamatory online reviews

Key to the reputation of any business is how their service is viewed by consumers. Whilst previously conceptions could be cultivated through word of mouth or direct advertising, the rise of review sites has fundamentally altered the landscape.

Now, potential consumers are able to peruse hundreds of testimonials of former customers with just a few clicks. These reviews are also often given pride of place by search engines, with the highest rated reviews often appearing at the very top of the page when searching for a specific company.

While these review sites have generally aided consumers by creating transparency and direct accountability, they are also open to abuse. With the operators of these sites unable or unwilling to vet each and every review submitted, it is possible for those acting in bad faith to submit false, and potentially libellous, reviews of companies with very little oversight.

These malicious reviews can have significant consequences. Just as consumers are attracted and reassured by companies with a wealth of positive reviews, any signs of negative feedback can act as a significant deterrent. In this way, false reviews can directly contribute to businesses losing custom as well as their standing in the marketplace – as the old adage goes, it can take years to build a reputation but only seconds to destroy one.

Fortunately, awareness around malicious reviews is growing. Ealier this month, in the case of Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth, a disgruntled former client was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages to a law firm he had posted defamatory claims about.

After instructing the firm on a £200 fixed fee over a dispute involving the enforcement of a court order, the disgruntled former-client posted on Trustpilot that his experience with the firm had been A total waste of money another scam solicitor [sic].

During the case, the law firm evidenced the financial harm caused by this damaging claim: in the five weeks following the posting of the review, the number of weekly enquiries fell by almost 50 per cent.

After reviewing the facts of the case, including the individuals lack of engagement with the firms complaints process, Master David Cook, the presiding judge, ordered the individual to pay damages and for the review to be removed from Trustpilot.

While it is of course positive to see the courts robustly dealing with those who leave defamatory comments, there will inevitably be a delay between the review going live and the court being able to assess the case, a period of time where the business involved can be significantly damaged.

So what can be done in the short term?

How to remove defamatory comments: a step by step guide

  • Steps you can take independently
    • Firstly, check if the reviewer is actually a client/customer. For example, Google Review only allows reviews by those who have used your services, and if they were not a client/customer, then Google may remove the review in question upon request. You should also check to see if the review breaches any of the platforms User Terms and Conditions.  This, however, is not a silver bullet – while it does work in some cases, a positive response from the review platform is not guaranteed.
    • If they are a client/customer, check to see if they followed your organisations procedure for making a complaint. If they made a complaint, contact them to pick up the complaint and ask them to remove the review in the meantime at least until the proper complaints procedure can be completed.
    • If they did not make a complaint, ask them to please use the proper complaints procedure and remove their review in the interim. 
  • Legal options
    • If they were a client and still refuse to remove the malicious review, the next-step would be a take-down notice to remove the review from a specialist defamation firm. If they refuse, then as with the recent case of Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth, you can commence legal proceedings for defamation if you can prove financial harm to your business, such as a drop in enquiries.
    • If the user is anonymous, you may seek to obtain a third party disclosure order from the court, whereby the platform has to provide the contact details of the user. This is especially useful with Google who make all users have a registered email address. You can also obtain a self-identification order from the court, whereby the anonymous reviewer has to reveal their identity.
    • Finally, if none of the above bear fruit, there is also the option of suing the platform itself if you have put them on notice of the defamatory content and they have refused to take steps to remove it.

Vardags Reputation & Privacy team possess significant experience in removing defamatory comments, either by liaising with review platforms or pursuing claims in court. If you have been affected by any of the issues covered in this article, please call our confidential enquiry line on 020 7458 4321 or email us. We offer a free consultation to qualifying individuals.

Whether you are facing defamation in the press, by an individual, harassment, blackmail, mishandling of your private data, pre-publication threats, or you wish to gain top legal advice on such matters, reach out to our leading reputation and privacy team today. 

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