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Can I sue a patient for defamation on the Internet?

What can you do if a patient conducts a scurrilous campaign on the Internet, calling into question your skills as a doctor? Barristers Michael Salter and Chris Bryden advise.

What can you do if a patient conducts a scurrilous campaign on the Internet, calling into question your skills as a doctor? Barristers Michael Salter and Chris Bryden advise.

THE QUESTION

For some unknown reason a patient has begun a campaign against me on the internet. She has posted a webpage where she makes various unkind and untrue comments about my professional abilities and indulges in scurrilous speculation about me personally. She has also sent rambling letters to various other doctors in the area. What can I do?

THE ADVICE

In recent years the internet has burgeoned from a niche communications system to a fundamental part of our modern lives. It is now a massive resource for information and is the first port of call to many people, be they researching restaurant or hotel reviews, checking the news, or reading gossip sites.

It is extremely common for users idly to "Google" the name of anyone they come across to see what is written by or about them online.

Fortunately the law is now catching up with the rise of the internet and is providing individuals with greater remedies where they are the victim of scurrilous or libellous remarks online.

A recent high-profile case brought against the website Mumsnet by Gina Ford for carrying insulting messages about her on its discussion board ended with an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum.

Ms. Ford had issued proceedings against the website for carrying these comments, rather than the individuals themselves, but it is perfectly possible to bring an action for defamation against an individual poster.

In January 2005 a member of a pub quiz team with a grudge against a quiz master posted comments on the website of his team. These were found to be defamatory and damages of £5,000, plus costs of £12,500, were awarded.

Damages have also been awarded, for example, for comments made on the Friends Reunited message board. The same principles should apply where the website is set up by the alleged defamer.

Launching an action for defamation is an extreme step, and advice as to the merits of individual cases should always be sought from specialist legal advisers.

On a practical level however it should be noted that bringing a claim will almost invariably result in the granting of greater publicity to the allegation.

It is also possible to apply for an injunction restraining someone from posting defamatory material, whether online or otherwise. Breach of such an injunction can have dire consequences for the person choosing not to obey.

It may also be possible in some circumstances to bring an action against an ISP (Internet Service Provider) who is hosting a defamatory website, although the law in this respect is less clear, and the mere hosting of such a site will not make the ISP liable itself.

ISPs are usually involved in such cases by being the targets of what are called "Norwich Pharmical" orders compelling them to give up information about people making libellous comments (useful where the identity of the poster is not known), or as parties to injunction applications to compel them to stop hosting websites with libellous remarks.

It may be possible that the actions of this person could also be construed as harassment, but this would depend very much on the facts of the case. Harassment is both a civil and a criminal offence.

Such actions could conceivably also give the police grounds to apply for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) if the campaign continued.

It is usually best to approach ISPs and other website hosts or discussion board moderators and inform them of the libellous comment. This will often result in the malicious patient being banned.

If the campaign continues the Practice may have no other option than to seek legal advice in respect of obtaining an injunction or issuing a claim for defamation, or both.

Launching an action for defamation is an extreme step.

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