My last real estate agent was a real piece of work. She was a bully and I would actively avoid calling her even when my rental apartment needed repairs. Last week I moved out of that property and was forced to deal with her again. She was still as rude as ever. I had made up my mind to leave a strongly worded review on the real estate agency's Google+ page, but is it legal for me to do so?
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Online review forums like TripAdvisor and Yelp are providing a platform for disgruntled customers to rage about businesses that have slighted them. For some, it's a form of catharsis while others genuinely want to warn people against working with dodgy companies. But in recent years online reviews have come under scrutiny around the world. Businesses at the receiving end of the negative comments are concerned about how the bad reviews could impact their bottom line and some have taken legal action against their keyboard-wielding detractors.
In Australia, an eBay buyer was sued by an a seller after writing bad reviews under local defamation laws.
All states and territories in Australia have passed the Defamation Act 2005, which is applicable to online reviews. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees may take legal action against writers of negative online reviews under claims of defamation. That's not a free pass for small businesses to sue the pants off anybody that says a bad word about them online.
According to HHG Legal Group, to successfully make a defamation claim, the business will have to establish the following in Court:
- The comment is ‘defamatory’ - that is, the comment must damage the business’s reputation in the eyes of the public;
- The defamatory comment was published to at least one other person (not including the defamed business); and
- The defamatory comment identifies the defamed business.
For a small business to be successful in mounting a defamation case, it will have to prove that the published material was not the honest opinion of the reviewer, or that the reviewer was acting maliciously. In other words, the reviewer’s intention must have been to damage the reputation of the business. Unfortunately, malicious reviewers often betray this very intention with extreme language and repeated targeting of a particular business.
If you're writing a review with the purpose of trying to ruin the reputation of a business then that could land you in hot water. But if you're writing a truthful, honest review about your experience, then you're well within your right to do so.
The trick is to avoid raving and ranting like a lunatic when you're leaving a review. Before you bash out a 1200 word essay on how horrible a business was and how the staff were all a bunch of morons, sit back, take a deep breath and gather your thoughts. Try to write a sensible review that states the facts on the issues you had with the company in question. Not only will your feedback be more likely to be taken serious but you'll also minimise the risk of being sued for defamation.
Law firm, Slater + Gordon, urges people to consider the following when writing an online review:
- the review should be treated as if it is being published to the world at large, given how fast online publications can spread (or go viral);
- it is not published for an ulterior motive;
- the review is truthful and accurate about any experience you have. This doesn’t mean you can’t use humour or satire in making your review enjoyable for others to read; and
- there can be serious repercussions if an online communication is defamatory of a person/business