A man who posted an online message slamming a law firm as a “total waste of money” and a “scam solicitor” has been ordered to pay £25,000 in damages for defamation.
Philip Waymouth, who says he is now living in Sweden, was also ordered to pay more than £3,000 in costs for a hearing this month – on top of costs he was ordered to pay, on the indemnity basis, after a hearing in July last year.
High Court Master David Cook held that Mr Waymouth had no defence to the defamation claim from West End law firm Summerfield Browne Ltd, striking out the defence of honest opinion and giving the firm summary judgement on the defences of public interest and truth.
The judge also issued an injunction banning Mr Waymouth from repeating his allegations, and an made an order under section 13(1)(a) of the Defamation Act 2013 that the Trustpilot website should remove the review.
The case is the latest in a series in which law firms have sued over defamatory reviews posted online by disgruntled former clients – some cases were prompted by comments posted on the once notorious but now defunct “Solicitors from Hell” website.
Mr Waymouth, the judge said, had approached Summerfield Browne Ltd over a dispute in which he was involved about the enforcement of a court order. He signed standard terms and conditions, and the firm then gave him advice for a fixed fee of £200.
“It seems that for some reason, which he has never fully articulated, the defendant was dissatisfied with the advice he was given,” Master Cook said.
Rather than engage with the firm under its dispute resolution procedure, Mr Waymouth posted a review on Trustpilot headed “A total waste of money another scam solicitor” in which he heavily criticised the firm and added that “You will learn more from forums, you tube and the Citizens advice website about your case, for free“.
Summerfield Browne sued, claiming £25,000 in general damages and special damages of £300 per day, and seeking summary judgment, an injunction and the removal of the offending review.
Mr Waymouth filed a defence, accompanied by a narrative seven-page document, pleading the defences of honest opinion, public interest, and truth, and taking issue over whether the firm had suffered serious harm.
On March 12 last year Summerfield Browne applied to strike out the honest opinion and public interest defences and sought summary judgment on the truth defence.
Mr Waymouth sent the court e-mails, but effectively refused to take any further part in the case, saying in one message: “I have already made it perfectly clear that this case should never be heard in court and I will not be giving it any credence or legitimacy by attending.”
But Master Cook said Mr Waymouth had filed an acknowledgement of service indicating an intention to defend the claim, and a defence, and had not otherwise taken issue with the court’s jurisdiction, adding: “On any view he must be taken to have accepted the jurisdiction of the court.”
The judge struck out the defence of truth, accepting the claimant’s argument that saying that the law firm was a “scam solicitor” was an allegation of dishonesty – and therefore, following the decision of Sir David Eady in Wasserman v Freilich ( EWHC 312 (QB)), was a factual allegation.
The judge also accepted the claimant’s argument that Mr Waymouth had no real prospect of establishing that publishing the review was in the public interest.
“The defendant cannot show that any care or any adequate enquiries or checks were made by him,” said Master Cook.
“He would clearly have been aware of the seriousness of the allegation. This point also seems to me to be sharpened by the nature of the defendant’s correspondence with the court in which his allegations are repeated.”
Mr Waymouth had made it clear in his defence that he sought money as a price for removing the review, said Master Cook, adding that he agreed that this conduct wholly undermined the defence of public interest.
On the truth defence, the judge said:
“I recognise that in the context of an application for summary judgment I must not conduct a mini-trial but it seems to me the defendant’s allegations are so bold that in the complete absence of any credible material to support them I can conclude there is no real prospect of them succeeding at trial.”
The defence was “fanciful” and it could not be proportionate to allow the case to go to trial.
On serious harm Master Cook said it was beyond any dispute that the words complained of had a clear tendency to put people off dealing with Summerfield Browne, and it was difficult to conclude that Mr Waymouth had any other purpose in mind when posting his review.
“It is a serious matter to accuse a solicitors firm of dishonesty and any such allegation is likely to deter those who are unfamiliar with the firm from using its services. There is supportive evidence that the number of enquiries fell dramatically after the review was posted,” he said.
He awarded the law firm £25,000 in general damages, but rejected the claim for special damages, saying it had not been made out.
On costs, the judge said Mr Waymouth had failed to comply with an order to pay Summerfield Browne’s costs, on the indemnity basis, up to and including a hearing in July last year at which he had struck out parts of the defence and required him to file an amended defence.
He also awarded Summerfield Browne the £3,450 it was seeking in costs for the disposal hearing.
Summerfield Browne Ltd v Philip James Waymouth
Neutral citation:  EWHC 85 (QB)
Queen’s Bench Division, Master Peter Cook
Hearings: July 6, 2020 and January 18, 2021; Reasons: January 18.
S J Bradshaw, instructed by Summerfield Browne Ltd, for the claimant; the defendant did not appear and was not represented.