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Defamation is an area of law designed to protect people’s reputations from unfair or unjustified public attacks. Individuals can sue businesses for making defamatory statements, often against public figures. Therefore, it is important to understand the basics of how defamation works and what qualifies as a ‘defamatory statement’ that might give rise to a claim. 

This article sets out:

  • how defamation works in New Zealand; 
  • what kinds of statements are defamatory statements (in other words, statements that could expose your business to a claim of defamation); and
  • what the defences to a claim of defamation are.

How Does Defamation Work?

Defamation is a body of law that aims to balance freedom of expression with the protection of reputations from untrue or harmful statements. To legally prove defamation, a person making a claim (the plaintiff) must be able to prove that the:

  • defendant made a defamatory statement;
  • statement was about the plaintiff; and
  • statement was published by the defendant (the person the plaintiff is making the defamation claim against). 

Defamation can either be written or verbal, but the key thing is that it must be public. Therefore, if the defendant only makes a defamatory statement in private (or to the plaintiff), this will not count as a statement being ‘published’. However, being published does not necessarily mean that the statement is (for instance) printed in a newspaper or online. Verbally making a statement to a group of people, for instance, could count as ‘publication’.

It is a serious matter if somebody makes a defamation claim against you or your business. You should immediately seek legal advice about how to respond to the claim and size up the possible liability for your business. If the defamation claim succeeds, a court can order your business to pay significant damages and make other corrective measures. 

What is a Defamatory Statement?

There is no single definition of what a defamatory statement is. Over the years, the courts have laid out many different ways of thinking about what should qualify as ‘defamatory’. If a statement is not ‘defamatory’, then the defamation claim will fail. Therefore, it is important to know what means a statement could amount to defamation or not.

The best way of thinking about a defamatory statement is to consider what the possible effect of the statement would be. Does the statement ridicule the subject of the statement or expose them to hatred or contempt? Would most people in society think less of the person if they heard the statement, or would it not make a difference to them?

For instance, if your business accuses some public figure of fraud or incompetence, this might qualify as defamation as it would harm the person’s reputation. 

What Are the Defences to Defamation?

Even if a plaintiff can prove all the elements of a defamation claim (in other words, that the defendant publicised a defamatory statement about the plaintiff), the claim may not succeed if the defendant has a defence to the claim. There are a few different types of defences to defamation. The most common kinds include: 

  • honest opinion: where the defendant can prove that they had a reasonable basis for the opinion they expressed in the alleged defamatory statement;
  • truth: where the statement itself is true, or essentially the same as the truth; and
  • consent: where the plaintiff themselves consented to the publication of the defamatory material. 

Key Takeaways

Defamation is a way for people to protect untrue or unjustified statements harming their public image or reputation. It is an area of law that requires a person to prove that they have been defamed. Therefore, they must show that a harmful statement about them was publicised or published by the person they are making a claim against. This can include businesses, who will need to prove that they did not publish the harmful statement or have a defence against the claim. These defences can include: 

  • an honest opinion; 
  • truth; or 
  • that the person consented to the statement.

If you want to know more about defamation or handling a possible claim of defamation against your business, contact LegalVision’s dispute lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is defamation?

It is where a person harms another person’s reputation by making false or unjustified statements.  

What is a ‘defamatory statement’? 

What kinds of statements are defined as defamatory does depend heavily on the context and specific circumstances of the particular statement. However, generally, they include something that would make most people (think the ‘average person’) think less of the person involved. If the statement makes the person more likely to be ridiculed or ridiculed, it is more likely to qualify as defamatory.

What are the defences to a defamation claim?

There are several possible defences to a claim of defamation. These include truth (if the defamatory statement was true), honest opinion (if there was a reasonable basis for the claim), and consent (if the subject of the statements consented to those statements and their publication). 

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