Defamation - An FAQ guide for property professionals

Defamation is a trap for anyone to fall into, including letting and estate agents.

In the heat of the moment, making a slip that can land you in hot water by saying something that’s inaccurate on an email or phone call is easy.

Talking to someone or publishing property details online leaves an electronic trail that gives someone who feels aggrieved all the evidence they need to claim damages.

Just remember you can hold an honest opinion, but spreading gossip and rumours about a property sale, tenant, buyer or a competitor can mean you are breaking the law.

What is defamation?

Defamation is a written or spoken statement that is false and can damage someone’s reputation.

Written defamation is libel, while a spoken defamatory comment is slander.

Broadcasting a false statement on radio or TV is considered libel, while comments published online in emails, chat rooms, forums are slander.

When does comment become defamation?

Holding an opinion is not a problem, but when comments are made about someone else that are false and which can lead to harming someone’s reputation or leading to a financial loss, then they can be considered as libel.

If the statement leads others to think badly of someone, it may also be libellous.

The person suffering the consequences of libel does not have to be named – for instance saying the CEO of a company is a crook and a thief is a libel against the CEO.

Who proves libel?

The person making the statements must produce evidence to show what they are saying is true, although for slander, the victim must show how their reputation or business was damaged.

How can property agents libel someone?

It’s just too easy to make a slip. Some of the most common ways to libel someone are:

  • Giving an employee, landlord or tenant a bad reference
  • Saying something about a property that leads someone to buy or rent that later turns out to be untrue. Sometimes this is called misrepresentation
  • Spreading unproven rumours about the professional ability of a business rival
  • By repeating what someone else has said without checking that proves to be untrue

What are the defences against defamation?

If you can prove your statements were true, then there’s nothing to worry about.

Other defences include making a statement in the public interest.

Who is liable for an employee defaming someone?

If the incident took place while the employee was acting on behalf of the letting or estate agency, then the business is responsible for the libel.

Protecting your business against defamation

Be careful about what staff say on emails, the phone and online – explain defamation to them and how to avoid libel or slander.

Professional indemnity insurance for letting and estate agents also offers some peace of mind against defamation.

The cover includes legal representation, paying legal costs and settling any claim for damages, which could run into tens of thousands of pounds if the case goes to court and the defamation is considered a serious slur.

Premiums start from £12.60* a month

*Based on £100,000 worth of cover. Plus insurance premium tax (IPT) currently at 12%.