When you complain you can be rude, funny, outrageous or sarcastic but it is important not to overstep the mark and libel someone.  This can be done very easily and can land you in hot water.  The Liverpool footballer Ryan Babel has just discovered this law after posting a joke picture of a referee on Twitter.  The image depicted the official in a Manchester United shirt, implying of course that he was biased having made a controversial penalty decision.  What is the law of libel and how should you be careful when complaining?
  • The broad legal heading is defamation – which includes libel (things in writing such as newspapers, the Internet or even a letter) and slander which is more concerned with the spoken word.
  • A letter of complaint could be defamatory if it contained outrageous lies about someone eg. if it suggested that someone were a thief, a liar, a cheat or something of the kind.  The rather odd legal test is if the item in question  lowers the reputation of the offended person in the minds of “right-thinking people”.  Suggesting that a referee favoured one side in a match clearly falls within the rule.
  • To fall foul of the law of libel there must also be “publication”.  This has a wide meaning and does not just mean posting onto the Internet or appearing in a national newspaper.  If for example (as I often recommend) you were to send a letter of complaint to a wide range of people (eg the main board of the company) or to a third party such as your local MP or newspaper, that would constitute publication.
  • There are defences to the laws of libel but you need to be sure of your ground.  Most importantly, if the remark is true then it cannot be defamatory.  If one were to suggest that a referee was biased and supported this will irrefutable evidence of bribery, that would form a perfect defence to a claim in libel.
  • In the age of emails and Twitter it is all too easy to be casual about comments that may be said in jest but which can create a massive legal issue.  If you find yourself on the wrong end of a libel claim it can be very serious and expensive.  Moreover, it might have wider implications of a disciplinary nature if the act of defamation is connected to your work.  Be careful.