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How to Defend Yourself Against False Accusations - Defamation of Character

Updated: Apr 15

In this article, we'll explore the legal definition of defamation, explain what you'll need to prove in order to bring a successful civil lawsuit for defamation.

False accusations occur when an individual accuses another of having committed an offence when they have not done so. "Libel" and "slander" fall under the larger legal umbrella of "defamation." Libel is written defamation, and slander is spoken defamation.

Defamation Defined

Defamation is typically defined as a false statement someone makes about you, which they publish as a statement of fact, and which harms your personal and/or professional reputation or causes you other damages, including financial loss and emotional distress.

The Defamation Act 2013 is the primary legislation in this area, which has been supplemented by previous legislation and court decisions. The defamation does not have to be written or posted online, it can also be spoken.

The two types of defamation are:

Libel — a written statement. For example, an article appearing in the press or on social media.
Slander — a spoken false accusation.

Whether words or language amount to a false accusation capable of forming a defamation claim depends on the circumstances in which the statement was made. A statement that is merely someone's opinion is not defamatory, unless it is presented as if it were a fact.

If someone writes, "It seems to me that Jess March is a crooked politician," that most likely is protected opinion. Courts do not want to hinder public speech, even about controversial subjects, so opinions generally are protected speech. However, if the statement is "Jess March is a crooked politician," and it is not a true statement, it may be defamatory. It is a fine distinction to bear in mind, but an important one. Learn more about defamation and free speech.

What Defamation Claimants Need to Prove

To prevail on a defamation claim if you are a private individual, you must first prove that the statement was false. If the statement is true, no matter how unflattering it may be, your claim will be barred because truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action.

In addition, you will usually need to prove that the statement was made by a person who either knew it was false at the time, or showed "reckless disregard" for whether it was true or false. Finally, the statement also must be published.

The most common examples of publication would be posting online, inclusion in a newspaper or magazine, or repetition on a news broadcast, but if the speaker repeats the statement to any third party, it may still constitute defamation.

In the average case, if you can prove these three things (false statement, made knowingly or recklessly, and published to others), a court will presume that you have suffered damages without any showing of harm, and you could receive compensation for provable losses.

But, to recover so-called "punitive damages," damages intended to make an example of the person or entity that made the statement, you would need to show that the statement was made maliciously, which is a more difficult showing to make.

Often, the biggest hurdle to overcome in these situations is that it tends to be one person’s word against another, with rarely any witnesses corroborating either position.

With social media, false allegations can be posted and circulated widely to multiple recipients with relative ease. Social media posts often have a ‘snowball’ effect, with the potential to reach millions of people in seconds.

There is a huge stigma attached to being falsely accused of an offence, and this can have far-reaching consequences on the accused person’s life. Even if the allegations do not lead to criminal charges or sanctions, the effects of being wrongly accused can be devastating.


Claiming for Defamation of Character

To bring a claim for defamation of character, the libel or slander must have taken place within the previous 12 months unless there are exceptional circumstances to justify the delay.

A claimant must be able to show that the defamatory statement contained four elements:

The claimant was named directly or clearly identified.
The statement could cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.
It amounted to a statement of fact rather than an honestly held opinion.
The statement was not true.

Defending Defamation of Character Claims

A defendant must prove that the defamatory statement was substantially true. If the defendant can prove the statement was true or amounted to an honestly held opinion, they have a statutory defence to the claim.

Other less well-known statutory defences to defamation proceedings include:

The exercise of privilege.
Publication on a matter of public interest. To defend such a case, the defendant has to show the statement was of public interest, and they held a reasonable belief that publishing the statement complained of was in the public interest.
Innocent dissemination. This is where the defendant is not the author, editor or publisher of the statement in question; they took reasonable care in publication and had no reason to believe they were publishing defamatory material.
Website and intermediary online defences.

Remedies For Defamation of Character

The most common remedies the court can order are:

Damages (compensation for injury to reputation and distress/injury to feelings). When assessing damages, the court will also assess a claimant’s financial loss from the libel or slander.
An injunction preventing the statement or similar statements from being re-published.
Legal costs.

Most cases settle, and solicitors are free to negotiate the terms of the settlement. These typically include:

Damages (compensation).
A legal promise (undertaking) not to re-publish similar statements.
A retraction or apology — this could be private, public or a statement in the High Court.

Besides actions for defamation, if a complainant does not have reasonable grounds for believing the offence happened, or they are making vindictive allegations or attempting to pervert the course of justice, they may themselves be committing an offence.

Cases involving false allegations of any kind are often fraught with emotion and highly distressing, but the most important thing that you can do is secure the assistance of an experienced specialist solicitor at the earliest possible opportunity. This can truly make the difference when it comes to protecting your reputation and your future. As easy as it is, it is also crucial to try and not get too caught up in the emotional turmoil of such a case, and to avoid having contact  with your accuser at every stage of the process.


Being falsely accused of a crime is one of the most traumatic and stressful experiences that a person can go through. The process of making efforts to exonerate and clear yourself can take a severe toll on your personal and professional life, bringing emotional turmoil on both yourself and those closest to you.

However, it is vital that you do not lose hope and that you ensure you are surrounded by the very best legal professionals from day one. 

What should you remember if you are falsely accused of an offence?

Excellent legal representation is not the only important element to successfully navigating through the legal process and when falsely accused of a crime. You should also make every effort not to let your emotions get the better of you at each stage of the proceedings. This can be difficult as there are few things more distressing than a false accusation, but taking a measured and calm approach is always advisable.

It is also of paramount importance that you avoid all contact with your accuser. You may wish to confront them, ask them what the basis of their accusation is or talk them into dropping the charges but this can only lead to further problems or accusations of perverting the course of justice.  While legal proceedings are ongoing, no form of communication – whether electronic or face-to-face – can be permitted.


Is making a false accusation a crime?

Yes, making a false accusation is a crime – as is lying to the police. Should this occur, false allegations are taken very seriously.

Can you press charges against someone for making a false accusation?

Yes, anybody making a false accusation can be charged and convicted of wasting police time. Alternatively, they might be charged with a more serious offence of perverting the course of justice. Anybody found guilty of such a crime could face a maximum sentence of six months in prison for wasting police time or much longer if convicted of perverting the course of justice.. 

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