Defamation: Libel and Slander
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Daniel Coles, Owen Bird Law Corporation and Christopher Morcom, Pacific Law Group in February 2022.
The law of defamation protects a person’s reputation from unjustified harm. Learn what kinds of communication are considered defamatory, as well as the defences to a defamation action.
What is defamation?
Defamation is communication about a person that tends to hurt their reputation. It makes people who read or hear the communication think less of that person.
The communication must be made to other people, not just conveyed privately.
If defamation is spoken, it’s called slander. If it’s written, it’s called libel.
The law protects you from defamation. If someone defames you, you can sue them for money (called damages) for harming your reputation.
What kinds of communication can amount to defamation?
To establish a defamation claim, you must show that the communication meets three requirements. You have to show that:
- the communication was defamatory (that it would tend to lower your reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person),
- it referred to you, and
- it was communicated to at least one other person.
Personal insults that only injure your pride normally don’t satisfy this test. But if someone spreads rumours accusing you of a crime, for example, you’d have a much stronger claim that this harms your reputation.
What kinds of damages might be awarded in a defamation lawsuit?
If the person bringing a defamation lawsuit (the “plaintiff”) can prove they were defamed, and the defendant doesn’t have a defence to the claim, a court may award damages for loss of reputation. These are often called general damages.
Awards for general damages vary widely, from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. They depend on several factors, including:
- the plaintiff’s position and standing in the community,
- the nature and seriousness of the defamation,
- the mode and extent of publication,
- the absence or refusal of any retraction or apology, and
- the conduct of the defendant from the time of the defamatory statements to judgment.
How widely the remarks were shared is an especially important factor in assessing damages in internet defamation cases.
The plaintiff may also be entitled to special damages, such as lost earnings, but only if they can prove that the lost earnings resulted from the defamatory statement, and not from other factors.
If someone makes defamatory statements with malice, the plaintiff may also be entitled to aggravated or even punitive damages.
For more on how damages work, see our in-depth guidance on defamation.
What’s involved in suing someone for defamation?
In BC, you must bring a defamation lawsuit in BC Supreme Court, not Provincial Court. It must be brought within two years of the defamation. This window of time is the limitation period. The clock begins when the defamatory statement was made or published. To start the lawsuit, you must file documents in court and deliver them to (“serve” them on) the other party. For details, see our information on starting a lawsuit.
|Consider alternatives to going to court
Going to BC Supreme Court is expensive. Even if you win, you may spend more on legal fees than you get in damages. A court can award costs to the winner of a lawsuit, but costs cover only a small portion of your full legal costs. If possible, it’s best to resolve the dispute outside of court. See our guidance on alternatives to going to court.
What if someone accuses me of defamation?
To establish a defamation claim, the person accusing you must show that:
- the communication was defamatory (that it would tend to lower their reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person),
- it referred to them, and
- it was communicated to at least one other person.
If your accuser proves these three elements, the onus shifts to you to put up a defence. The following six defences are available to you:
- Truth, also known as justification, if the defamatory statement is substantially true and you can prove it.
- Absolute privilege, if the statement is made in certain proceedings (like a lawsuit).
- Qualified privilege, if the statement is made in performing a public or private duty.
- Fair comment, if it’s a statement of opinion, based on stated and true facts, on a matter of public interest.
- Responsible communication on matters of public interest, if the statement concerns a matter of public interest and was made responsibly. This includes being diligent in trying to verify the statement and seeking the other party’s side of the story before circulating it.
- Innocent dissemination, if the person distributed the defamatory statement unknowingly, and wasn't negligent in not knowing. And they must have immediately removed the statement on learning of the defamation.
For more on each of these defences, see our guidance on if you’ve been accused of defamation.
What is the effect of an apology?
One factor a judge will look at in deciding on a damages award for defamation is whether the person accused later retracted their statements or offered an apology. If they can show they made an effort to walk back their remarks, it’s likely they’ll pay less in damages if the matter goes to court.
But an apology or retraction doesn’t prevent someone from suing for defamation. It just limits the damages.
|More questions & answers
At a webinar in March 2022, lawyer Daniel Coles answered common questions about defamation, including what it is and what you can do about it.
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