Unfair online review: what does this mean for my business?

Many small business owners will be familiar with the impact of negative reviews, especially on social media. A quick post made by an irritated customer could cost thousands. So what if the review is untrue? What if it crosses a line?

A High Court ruling last week has given some guidance. Damages of £25,000 were awarded to a law firm in relation to a Trustpilot review left by a disgruntled client, which Trustpilot refused to remove.  The client’s review stated that the firm was “a total waste of money” and “another scam solicitor”.  In his decision, the judge ordered the client not only to pay damages but to also remove the offending review.

For background, the firm relied heavily on online searches to generate new business.  Following the publication of the offending review, weekly enquiries fell by around half.  Even with a majority of five-star reviews, the negative comments in the review brought down the overall score of the firm and impacted the generation of new business.  The client had paid a fixed fee for legal advice and signed the firm’s terms and conditions.  The client appeared unhappy with the advice and wrote in his review: “You will learn more from forums, youtube and the Citizens advice website about your case, for free”.  However, the client did not raise any of his concerns directly with the firm.  He argued that the review reflected his honest opinion of the firm’s service.  In the circumstances, the judge stated that use of the word “scam” conveyed an allegation of fraud, which was a “serious matter” and to accuse the firm of dishonesty “would be likely to deter those who are unfamiliar with the firm from using its services”.

This isn’t just about lawyers. This is about the impact of on-line reviews and how they affect online business. This is likely to be just as important for trades, or licensed premises – basically negative reviews could be an issue for anyone dealing directly with the public.

The ruling demonstrates that unfair and untrue reviews can have a profound negative impact.  Given the increased reliance on online platforms to conduct and generate new business – especially in a pandemic when face to face meetings are not allowed – the relevance of this decision should not be underestimated. The law is now clear: an unjustified review, especially where no concerns have been raised, can give a basis for a legal claim. The negative reviewer can be made to pay cash.

Whether you are a tradesperson who generates leads by advertising on social media, or a licensed premises that promotes itself by targeted advertisements, negative reviews can seriously impact the willingness of prospective customers to get in touch.  Action can be taken both in terms of asking the platform to take down a defamatory review and, in the event that you suffer loss, there may be redress available to compensate.

However, beware of a pyrrhic victory.

The effects of a negative review can be damaging… but going to court over the review could just exacerbate the whole situation. In this case, when news of the legal action broke, supportive reviews began to appear! Maybe – and this is coming from a law firm – court action should be the last resort.

That said, the court is not the only legal option. If you have had any issues with negative customer issues and/or wish them to be removed, we would strongly advise that you take legal advice on the matter. Joanna Millar, Head of Gilson Gray’s Licensing Team, has particular experience in this area and regularly advises restaurants, bars, and licensed premises on the issues raised in this blog.  Alex Garioch is one of our litigation partners with a particular interest in these matters.

If you would like further information on the topic discussed in this blog, please contact:

Joanna Millar by email: jmillar@gilsongray.co.uk or by phone: 0141 370 8116 / 07487 837 230. You can also view Jo’s profile by clicking here.

Alex Garioch by email: agarioch@gilsongray.co.uk or by phone: 0141 530 2041 / 07841 921 685. You can also view Alex’s profile by clicking here.

The information and opinions contained in this blog are for information only. They are not intended to constitute advice and should not be relied upon or considered as a replacement for advice. Before acting on any of the information contained in this blog, please seek specific advice from Gilson Gray.

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