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Anyone for a polite and professional exchange in the Gazette?

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Solicitors mocking each other in public? Surely not.

Has anyone else noticed how heated the reader comments are in the Law Society Gazette recently?

Take a look at Law Centres Field Brexit Concerns from EU Citizens (29 June 2016)  and the comments made by readers seem pretty appalling – rude, personal, and not reflecting too well on the professionalism and the conduct of solicitors. Or is it just a bit of fun that shouldn’t be taken too seriously?

Previously I have reported on a comment made in response to PII costs fall – but attempted fraud is rampant (29 April 2016) that overseas lawyers from “dubious countries” are committing fraud. This comment was reported as being racist and inappropriate to The Gazette through the “report this comment” facility, but it remains published.

In Immigration bar slams solicitors over ‘poor’ standards (20 May 2016) we see an astonishing escalation of lawyer in-fighting with barristers being thoroughly trounced by solicitors, then developing (by the time we get to the third page of comments) to a cat fight (or cat food fight anyway) between legal aid and private immigration solicitors.

These excitable and emotive comments that we make on the spur of the moment are read by hundreds, possibly thousands of other readers (the Gazette website has two million hits a month) including clients, the public, students who may be considering entering into a career as a solicitor and last but not least, the SRA. Some may be thinking as I do that they don’t reflect too well on the profession.

Some of the people making comments, who are then trashed by others through the thumbs down icon and comments, could even be our clients – there is no requirement that you must be a member of the legal profession to register and make comments on the Gazette website.

Thankfully Facebook and LinkedIn don’t have the thumbs down thing, otherwise judging from our conduct on The Gazette and Legal Cheek, we’d have no friends or connections.

Section 5 could help the Law Society, but not us.
Section 5 could help the Law Society, but not us.

In the interest of freedom of speech, the Law Society need not fear liability for self posted comments made by us so long as they follow the statutory procedure under section 5 of the Defamation Act 2013, under which a complainant may send a notice of complaint to the publisher, who must then respond in accordance with the procedure set out in the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013.

But we need to be very aware of the potential consequences of making an inappropriate comment – as was recently brought to our attention in the “Twitter Solicitor” incident involving Baker Small. Their website is still not available following the extensive national media coverage concerning the inappropriate tweet made by a solicitor at the firm, which appeared to mock parents who had lost a court case.

A comment may appear to be made in the spirit of an article or no worse to other comments made but as per the Baker Small incident, but when taken out of context it could look very unprofessional and could escalate into bad publicity.

Under the cold hard scrutiny of a complaint, an abusive comment could also be perceived as not acting within the 10 mandatory principles of conduct, including the requirement to act with integrity and behave in a way that maintains the trust that the public places in you and in the provision of legal services.

And in a worse case scenario, a person subjected to an abusive comment could bring a claim for defamation against the abuser – we have seen a recent example of this in Ireland as Judge John O’Hagan of Monaghan Circuit Court awarded €75,000 in damages against a man who had posted a defamatory comment on Facebook.

My view: The comments boxes are not for boxing

Having said all of this, I’d be genuinely glad to hear from anyone who thinks I am a kill-joy who is unnecessarily fussing about nothing, and the comments facility on the Gazette’s website really can be used as an opportunity to have a go at others, vent frustration, and trounce the views of our fellow professionals with a sarcastic comment and use of the thumbs down icon. Please submit your views below. Thumbs up and down facility not provided.

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