‘Legislation corporations reside by the sword of constructive shopper suggestions, however additionally they die from the sword of unhealthy press’, writes legislation agency companion Chris Hadrill

Final month an article within the Legislation Society Gazette caught my consideration (sure, a few of us nonetheless learn it): disgruntled client ordered to pay £25,000 damages for libellous review.

The temporary details of the case are: shopper retains legislation agency on mounted price; shopper and legislation agency fall out; shopper doesn’t use inside complaints course of however leaves legislation agency a one-star evaluate on Trustpilot alleging that they have been “one other rip-off solicitor”; and legislation agency subsequently sues (former) shopper for defamation within the Excessive Courtroom.

The Excessive Courtroom held in Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth [2021] EWHC 85 (QB) (on abstract judgment) that Waymouth had defamed Summerfield Browne in leaving the evaluate that he did, awarding the agency £25,000 in damages and ordering that Trustpilot take away the offending evaluate from its web site. In step with his failure to utilise Summerfield Browne’s complaints course of Waymouth didn’t attend court docket to defend himself (though, to be truthful to Waymouth, he did warn the court docket in correspondence that he wouldn’t be attending any listening to), and most legal professionals would most likely assume that the judgment was not solely fairly cheap but in addition a good abstract of what it’s prefer to take care of most litigants in particular person.

The court docket’s judgment in Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth is neither difficult nor significantly controversial, and upon studying it you’d be forgiven in case you assumed that this was simply one other case to be consigned to the dusty BAILII archives. Nevertheless, fairly the opposite occurred: the case rapidly caught the eye of the nationwide press, being reported within the Occasions, the Each day Mail, the Monetary Occasions, and the BBC (amongst others). Along with this, most of the people began to depart unsolicited and rather unwarranted reviews for the firm on Trustpilot and Google Evaluations — as of the time that this text was written the agency had a ranking of two stars (out of 5) on Trustpilot (primarily based on 242 opinions left for the agency), with numerous one-star opinions stating that they have been leaving poor suggestions on the idea of the media’s reporting of the litigation relatively than their expertise of the legislation agency’s providers.

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Reasonably satirically, the try and take away one defamatory one-star evaluate had resulted in a whole bunch of additional (arguably defamatory) one-star opinions being left. Trustpilot had threatened to disregard a court docket order to take away the evaluate, arguing that the order constitutes an infringement of free speech. The evaluate which was the topic of authorized motion has since been eliminated, and the agency’s Trustpilot profile is quickly closed for brand new opinions.

For the reason that publication of the judgment in Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has helpfully provided guidance on why solicitors ought to search public suggestions from purchasers on their providers, that corporations ought to work together in a constructive means with detrimental suggestions, and that corporations ought to search to handle the issues of disgruntled purchasers by interacting with stated purchasers with a purpose to attain mutually-agreeable resolutions to complaints. Some may say that the SRA’s steering on how corporations ought to search and take care of opinions from purchasers is barely patronising and a bit late, with the Summerfield genie already having escaped from the bottle, and others may argue that it’s for particular person corporations to evaluate whether or not they require or need public suggestions on their providers relatively than have this mandated to them by the SRA.

This writer has to confess that the general public’s response to Summerfield Browne’s litigation in opposition to Waymouth has been relatively chilling: a family-run legislation agency, wholly harmless of any wrongdoing, pursues litigation within the Excessive Courtroom with a purpose to defend its repute however finally finally ends up severely damaging its repute within the court docket of public opinion — injury which, it’s truthful to say, will most likely take a big time period to get better from (if, in reality, it’s doable to get better totally). The response to this case means that within the digital age it’s crucial that solicitors are usually not solely good litigators and directors however that additionally they enhance their customer support and public relations choices, regardless of how incongruous this can be to the normal legislation agency — legislation corporations reside by the sword of constructive shopper suggestions, however additionally they die from the sword of unhealthy press.

Chris Hadrill is a companion and head of employment legislation at Redmans.

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