Understanding defamation – libel or slander

Understanding defamation - libel or slander

Dec 27, 2016

Defamation, broadly speaking, refers to communication about a person that serves to harm their reputation. In Canada, there are two forms of defamation: libel and slander. Libel refers to written statements or communications that form a permanent record and slanders refers to spoken statements or other gestures which do not form a permanent record.

Understanding Defamation – Criteria

The first thing to understand about both types of defamation is that the damaging statement must be untrue. For example, calling someone who has committed a crime a “criminal” is not necessarily defamatory, but saying the same about someone who has not committed a crime may be.

Defamation can also apply if the reputation damaged by the untrue statements is that of a business, organization, nation, group or product that also hurt a person’s reputation by association. For example, if someone makes an untrue claim about a product being fatal, the owner of the business that produces that product may have a case for defamation.

The final criteria for defamation is that the damaging statement is made to another person or persons. This is because defamation must damage your public reputation, not just your own personal pride.

Defamation is rarely a crime; instead those who suffer harm to their reputation may sue for costs or damages from the person who defamed them.

Financial Loss

Libel cases do not require the defamed person to specifically prove that they suffered financial losses as a result. In Canada, the law states that if you can prove someone committed libel against you, it is presumed that financial losses are incurred.

Slander, on the other hand, may require you to prove there were financial losses. The key difference between libel and slander is that there is no permanent record of slander and an uttered comment may not have long-lasting impact on your reputation. Therefore, financial loss must be proved to result from slander, which may be difficult to prove.

Common Defences

Not all harmful statements are considered defamatory and the law has made exceptions in certain situations. The following are considered legally just defences of defamation:

  1. Made only to the person who is defamed
  2. The statement is true.
  3. The statement is made in a place where people should have absolute privilege to speak such as evidence in a trial or in parliament. This is known as Absolute Privilege.
  4. The statement is made non-maliciously and for well-meaning reasons and thus should be excused. For example, an honest opinion of a product left on an online review. This is known as Qualified Privilege.
  5. The statement is made about an issue of public interest where the statement is a statement of opinion, based on fact and not made out of malice. This is known as Fair Comment.

News reporters also have a unique defence in cases of libel. If they can prove that the damaging statement was made while reporting urgent news of public interest, and the journalist used reliable sources and other proper journalism techniques, they may be able to use the defence of “responsible communication of matters of public interest.”

Defamation and the right to free speech

While the right to free speech is a protection under the law in Canada, it carries a limited nature and while defamation may damage a reputation, the other rights noted in the above section may be held above it under the law.

Libel and slander claims can be difficult to prove. For these reasons, it is imperative that you work with a lawyer experienced in defamation cases. If you are being sued for defamation or believe you may have been defamed, contact the trusted team at Chown Cairns St. Catharines Law Firm to speak with an experienced Niagara defamation lawyer.