When is defamation a crime?

Criminal libel was repealed in the UK in 2010, when the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into effect and abolished the offences of sedition and seditious libel, defamatory libel and obscene libel.

But the law still classes spoken or written statements about others that are not true as defamation.

Slander is an untrue spoken statement, while libel is publishing a falsehood about someone else in a letter, report or online.

What many people fail to realise is they can libel someone in an email or website.

In the UK, defamation is a civil action, and if proven, a judge can award significant damages to the plaintiff.

Many countries still have a criminal defamation law. The UK revoked the offences to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the offence was not needed in a modern legal system.

In many dictatorships, criminal defamation was a tool for governments to muzzle freedom of speech by arresting and imprisoning journalists and opposition politicians.

In the UK, defamation allows freedom of speech to prosper but keeps a check on telling lies that could damage someone’s reputation or business.

How can letting and estate agents defame someone?

The most common defamation issue for letting and estate agents is making false comments about rival firms, for instance, by suggesting in an email that they had been involved in property fraud without having evidence to support the claim.

Staff references that hint at bad discipline or perceived character flaws can also become unsuspected libel traps if someone has departed under a shadow and the episode is not carefully documented.

How does professional indemnity cover help property professionals?

Professional indemnity insurance would step in if someone makes a claim against their business, like the rival firm in the example above.

Depending on how widely the defamation had been circulated, the claimant could claim significant damages and costs running into tens of thousands of pounds.

Under professional indemnity cover, lawyers and claim handlers would negotiate a settlement with the claimant, draft an apology and the policy would pay out to cover the legal costs and any damages.