False accusations occur when an individual accuses another of having committed an offence when they have not done so. Often, the biggest hurdle to overcome in these situations is that it tends to be one person’s word against another, with rarely any witnesses corroborating either position.
With social media, false allegations can be posted and circulated widely to multiple recipients with relative ease. Social media posts often have a ‘snowball’ effect, with the potential to reach millions of people in seconds.
There is a huge stigma attached to being falsely accused of an offence, and this can have far-reaching consequences on the accused person’s life. Even if the allegations do not lead to criminal charges or sanctions, the effects of being wrongly accused can be devastating.
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If you find yourself in this situation, it is essential you seek legal advice as soon as you learn about the allegations. Even if you know you are innocent, it would be a mistake to attend a police interview without proper representation. An experienced solicitor with a deep understanding of the criminal justice system can put you in the best position to defend a false allegation.
· Seek legal help as soon as possible
· Take the allegation seriously, and don’t assume the police will automatically see things your way
· Do not take matters into your own hands
· Do not approach or contact the person making the complaint
· Do not interfere with any evidence that could be used during the investigation
There are many examples of high-profile celebrities suing the press for making false allegations against them under the law of defamation, but this area is also relevant to everyone from any walk of life.
The Defamation Act 2013 is the primary legislation in this area, which has been supplemented by previous legislation and court decisions. The defamation does not have to be written or posted online, it can also be spoken. The two types of defamation are:
· Libel — a written statement. For example, an article appearing in the press or on social media.
· Slander — a spoken false accusation.
Whether words or language amount to a false accusation capable of forming a defamation claim depends on the circumstances in which the statement was made.
To bring a claim for defamation of character, the libel or slander must have taken place within the previous 12 months unless there are exceptional circumstances to justify the delay. A claimant must be able to show that the defamatory statement contained four elements:
· The claimant was named directly or clearly identified.
· The statement could cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.
· It amounted to a statement of fact rather than an honestly held opinion.
· The statement was not true.
A defendant must prove that the defamatory statement was substantially true. If the defendant can prove the statement was true or amounted to an honestly held opinion, they have a statutory defence to the claim. Other less well-known statutory defences to defamation proceedings include:
· The exercise of privilege.
· Publication on a matter of public interest. To defend such a case, the defendant has to show the statement was of public interest, and they held a reasonable belief that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest.
· Innocent dissemination. This is where the defendant is not the author, editor or publisher of the statement in question; they took reasonable care in publication and had no reason to believe they were publishing defamatory material.
· Website and intermediary online defences.
The most common remedies the court can order are:
· Damages (compensation for injury to reputation and distress/injury to feelings). When assessing damages, the court will also assess a claimant’s financial loss from the libel or slander.
· An injunction preventing the statement or similar statements from being re-published.
· Legal costs.
Most cases settle, and solicitors are free to negotiate the terms of the settlement. These typically include:
· Damages (compensation).
· A legal promise (undertaking) not to re-publish similar statements.
· A retraction or apology — this could be private, public or a statement in the High Court.
Besides actions for defamation, if a complainant does not have reasonable grounds for believing the offence happened, or they are making vindictive allegations or attempting to pervert the course of justice, they may themselves be committing an offence.
It can be very stressful to be wrongly accused of a crime, but the best thing is to remain calm and follow your solicitor’s advice.
The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.