This week's High Court decision ordering the removal of defamatory statements from a website which 'exposes' solicitors and other lawyers may come as some relief to members of the legal profession. Readers will recall the 'Solicitors From Hell' website which was closed in 2011 following concerns raised by the Law Society as well as a number of other parties. SolicitorsFromHellUK.com seems to be a copycat website and contains what appear to be reviews from former clients about their lawyers, as well as editorials on legal matters. It claims to feature complaints regarding "Solicitor fraud, misconduct, incompetence, negligence, dishonesty, overcharging, corruption, embezzlement, lying/perjury and racism". Although the website does ask reviewers not to publish the names of individual lawyers, many reviews do 'name and shame' individuals.
The case in question was brought by niche City firm Brett Wilson LLP in response to an anonymous review on the website purportedly from a former client which alleged that the firm had overcharged the client and then threatened him when he refused to pay. The review appeared in the first five hits when Brett Wilson was entered into Google. Brett Wilson had been advised by a potential client that they had changed their mind about instructing the firm when they saw the negative review. Further, a litigation opponent had raised the review as 'evidence' that the firm was disreputable.
Understandably, Brett Wilson were unamused and sought an injunction removing the review from the website which was granted on 16 September 2015, despite the firm's inability to trace the anonymous owner of the site. The High Court was satisfied that the review had or was likely to cause serious harm to Brett Wilson's reputation and ordered the review to be removed, as well as the removal of any metadata or search engine links which referred to the firm as 'solicitors from hell' or 'lawyers from hell'. It also ordered damages of £10,000, the maximum possible amount. The owners of the website did not respond to the claim at any point or appear in court.
Interestingly, Brett Wilson had acted for the Law Society and others in their litigation against the original 'Solicitors From Hell' website. The Law Society also provided assistance to Brett Wilson in attempting to trace the owner of the site, albeit unsuccessfully. It appears that the Law Society remains prepared to take such matters seriously.
The website features reviews and articles about numerous firms and other legal professionals, most of which are similar in both tone and substance to the review published on Brett Wilson. It would be surprising if many of those featured on the website were not similarly unamused; the reviews may be causing them harm of the type suffered by Brett Wilson which could hit firms hard. This decision may therefore prompt others featured in those articles to take similar steps to protect their reputation. It remains to be seen whether Brett Wilson will be able to recover their damages.