The essentials of "Defamation” are: a statement (written or spoken) which tends to lower the victim in the minds of right thinking members of society, or causes him to be shunned, avoided, or exposes him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or disparages him in his office, profession, calling, trade or business.
In classic terms a slander is the spoken word; libel is published. To claim damages for slander you must show loss; for libel you can claim even without showing loss. In modern terms permanence is the key - so broadcasting a defamation on television, or publishing it on the internet, constitutes permanence and is a libel.
An action for defamation by Tweet is possible: it is no defence that the tweeter has a small following.
For individuals defamatory statements include: allegations of fraud, dishonesty or dishonourable motives. It is also defamatory to suggest someone is being investigated by the authorities, or is under suspicion of a crime.
It is defamatory to suggest someone is racist (and, by extension, homophobic, sexist, or generally anti-social in their behaviour and attitudes). It has been held defamatory to suggest someone is hypocritical, malicious, or guilty of falsehood.
Allegations of sexual immorality are, like all other allegations, to be judged against the prevailing standards of the time. Allegations of illegal sexual activity will, undoubtedly, be defamatory. Allegations of mental illness may be defamatory if, for example, they impact on the victim's ability to conduct his or her profession or calling.
Allegations that a victim has debts is not defamatory per se (most of us do). But to allege he has avoided his debts, or "done a bunk" will be a defamation.
The limitation period for defamation is one year which may be from date of publication or from date of loss. The Court may extend the time - but this is rare. Justification is a Defence; certain allegations may be privileged (e.g. when the defamation is made in instructions given to solicitors, but not accountants).
Defamation is governed by a pre-action protocol and usually begins with a letter written in compliance with the protocol's terms. This needs careful preparation and to be written for the specific allegations in each case.
Where a defamation is being repeated urgent action may be needed to obtain an injunction. This may be on notice or absolute urgency is required "ex parte” i.e. without notice to the Defendant.
When considering whether there has been a libel the Court may consider the words on their face (the literal meaning); an inference which may be drawn from the words; an implication which can be drawn from the words; innuendo which can be drawn from the words.
Proof of actual damage is not necessary in libel cases. There will be a presumption that the Claimant has suffered loss: the more serious the allegation the higher the damages.
Where a finding is made in favour of the Claimant the following may be awarded: an injunction; damages to compensate for injury to reputation; damages to compensate for hurt feelings; damages to restore the Claimant's public reputation. Aggravated, Special and Exemplary damages may sometimes be recovered.
Final point to note: a defamation claim does not attract legal aid.