Stephens Lawyers & Consultants
Australian courts have continued to award significant damages in defamation cases where the affected party has been able to establish that the defamatory publication has caused, or is likely to cause, “serious harm” to their reputation. The damages awards have ranged from $35,000 to over $280,000.
The additional requirement to establish “serious harm” element in a defamation action was part of the reforms to Australian defamation law which came into effect on 1 July 2021[i]. The reforms were enacted to encourage defamation claims not involving “serious harm” to be resolved without court action.
A party to defamation proceedings can apply to the court to have the “serious harm” element determined before the trial of the proceedings commences. Where such an application is made to the court, the Judge is required to determine the issue as soon as practicable before the trial commences unless satisfied that there are “special circumstances” justifying the determination at a later stage including during the trial[ii]. The court in considering whether “special circumstances” exist may take into account matters including the costs implications for the parties, court resources and the extent to which establishing the “serious harm” element is linked to other issues for determination during trial[iii]. The phrase “special circumstances” encompasses circumstances which are “not routine or run-of-the-mill” and having regards to the facts of a particular case, “there will be circumstances which, either alone or in combination with other factors, justify a conclusion that ‘special circumstances’ are made out”[iv].
This update provides a review of some of the recent defamation cases where the courts have considered whether the “serious harm” element has been established. These cases provide guidance as to the factors that the court will consider in determining “serious harm”, which include-
- The tendency of the word themselves to cause harm.
- Whether the imputations are “serious”.
- The extent of publication, including the “grapevine effect”, and the likelihood that the publication will come to the notice of other people.
- In the case of on-line publications, the number of views of the publication including the number of people who have clicked on or read the publication.
- Whether the publication continues to be published on-line after the court proceedings have commenced.
- The extent of reputational harm.
- The extent of financial loss suffered because of the publication.
In a number of the defamation cases, the courts have ruled that hurt feelings, distress, mental anguish and anxiety are not relevant to determining the element of “serious harm to reputation”. These rulings have not been reviewed by the appellate court.
[For a review of damages awarded in on-line defamation cases during the period March 2022 to 1 December 2022 see Stephens Lawyers & Consultants’ ‘Damages for On-line Defamation – Recent Selected Cases’ HERE. ]
Recent Selected Cases – ‘Serious Harm’ Element – 2 December 2022 To 4 August 2023
Derek Brammall v Benedict Ian Stevens  ACTMC 24
Date of Decision: 7 July, 2023
Court: Magistrates Court of the Australian Capital Territory
Publication Media: The plaintiff was a qualified mortgage broker with over 10 years of experience. The plaintiff’s claim concerned 2 emails which were authored and sent by the Defendant to 5 recipients and 6 recipients, respectively – on 22 September 2022 – with the recipients known by the plaintiff and selected because of their business relationship with the plaintiff.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: Magistrate J Campbell:-
- Found that the plaintiff’s occupation is a profession that relies on the reputation of honesty and trustworthiness, particularly in relation to financial matters and that the allegations contained in the Defendant’s emails were “extremely serious allegations”.[v]
- Stated that “serious harm is not established merely by the gravity of the allegations or the plaintiff’s own concerns and feelings. The Court must look at the impact of the imputation, in all the circumstances, on the plaintiff’s reputation arising from a combination of the inherent tendency of the words and their actual impact on those to whom they were communicated.”[vi]
- Was satisfied by the evidence provided by the Plaintiff that the publication had caused serious harm to the reputation of the plaintiff. Magistrate Campbell found that at least 2 of the recipients of the emails “think less of the plaintiff and as a result, have changed their methods of dealing with the plaintiff.”[vii]
Damages Awarded: The Plaintiff had submitted an award of damages in the sum of $35,000 and Magistrate Campbell “[agreed] that this sum adequately reflects the purposes of damages in the circumstances of this case”, also noting that there had been no further or continuing imputations made by the Defendant since the date of the emails.[viii]
- Damages in the sum of $35,000; and
- Defendant to pay the Plaintiff’s costs of the proceedings being $2,025.
Wale v Hollins  QDC 116
Date of Decision: 14 June 2023
Court: District Court of Queensland
Publication Media: The Plaintiff was the secretary and general manager of Cazalys Cairns Limited (‘Company’), a renowned commercial hospitality and sporting facility in Cairns. The Plaintiff, who had held his role with the Company for over 14 years, sued the Defendant for six (6) allegedly defamatory publications (5 emails and a letter) to his board of directors, officials, politicians and journalists, in which the Plaintiff’s personal and professional conduct was imputed.
The Plaintiff’s defamation proceedings against the Defendant then resulted in a front-page article in The Cairns Post newspaper. Morzone KC DCJ found that “This feature article in the regional city local newspaper likely garnered considerable interest amongst the newspaper’s readership in and about Cairns, greater far north Queensland and amongst the membership of [the Company] and its associated bodies”[ix] – with that membership number evidenced to be over 30,000 combined, at the time.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: The imputations were found to be “serious and attack[ed] the plaintiff’s personal integrity, professional competence, and moral character.”[x]
The Plaintiff’s evidence of the distress and humiliation he suffered as a consequence of the publications and ‘grapevine effect’[xi] resulting from the newspaper publicity about the proceedings (including of having to answer to the Company’s Board of Directors and the regulatory authority) was accepted by Justice Morzone “as being both truthful and reliable.”[xii]
Damages Awarded: Damages in the sum of $120,000 (including aggravated damages) plus $3,600 interest.
In determining damages Justice Morzone observed that “The defendant’s lack of bona fides[xiii], refusal to retract or apologise, and his adverse conduct during the proceedings justifies an uplift in damages, including aggravated damages.”[xiv]
Scott v Bodley (No 2)  NSWDC 651
Date of Decision: 22 December 2022
Court: District Court of New South Wales
Publication Media: The Plaintiff, the owner of a painting business, commenced defamation proceedings against the Defendant (a former customer) in relation to a one-star review posted by the Defendant on the Plaintiff’s Google and Facebook business pages for his business, in which the Defendant complained at length about the painting work completed for her by the Plaintiff and included photos of the work about which she complained.
The posts were online for 14 days between March 16 and March 31 in 2022 and were deleted after the Defendant received a Concerns Notice.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: The jurisdictional issue of ‘serious harm’ was determined separately and before the trial of the proceedings:
Gibson DCJ dismissed the proceedings, finding that:-.
- the Plaintiff failed to establish serious harm to reputation as required under s 10A of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW);
- “The imputations are not serious, the matters present the information as personal experience and views, the period of publication was brief and there is no evidence anyone ever read it.”[xv]
- the matters on both websites were only posted for 14 days – a short period of time;
- this was one single negative review among another 20 positive reviews, and Justice Gibson was not persuaded by the evidence that it could have such a devastating effect as to negate the positive reviews[xvi];
- the plaintiff could not nominate a single person who read the matter complained of, rather the Defendant asked that it be inferred that it was read by many if not most of the persons consulting the site – though no evidence to support this was able to be provided[xvii];
- there was no evidence of the ‘grapevine effect’ – in particular, no evidence of any conversations from clients, or of any of the plaintiff’s neighbours or friends[xviii] commenting to the plaintiff or to members of his family that they had read the matters complained of;
and Justice Gibson further observed that,
- Google users know that Google reviews must be read with a degree of caution – and that unflattering reviews appear on many if not most business websites. They would know that these reviews are largely expressions of personal opinion[xix] and that an assertion that a particular tradesman was (or was not) competent is not a “serious” imputation but an expression of an opinion.[xx]
Damages/Costs Awarded: The Plaintiff was ordered to pay the Defendant’s costs of the proceedings.
High Quality Jewellers Pty Ltd & Ors v Ramaihi (Ruling) (2022) VCC 2240
Date of Ruling: 16 December 2022
Court: County Court of Victoria at Melbourne
Publication Media: The Plaintiffs were concerned about a Google review allegedly published by the Defendant on the Plaintiffs’ Google business page which the Plaintiffs alleged conveyed defamatory imputations about each of them and their customer service. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Plaintiffs were all family and involved in the family run business of the 1st Plaintiff company. The Defendant was the owner of a residential apartment previously leased to him by the 2nd and 3rd Plaintiffs and had been in dispute with them about rent.
The review was published on 12 October 2021 and remained visible to the public as at the date of the trial. The Plaintiffs provided evidence showing that there had been many thousands of visits to their Google business page, that the Defendant’s review had received 14 ‘likes’ and that since the Defendant’s review they had received 6 one star reviews which may not have been genuine. The Plaintiff’s defamation proceeding was also the subject of media attention in June 2022 – and may have created some ‘grapevine effect’.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: This trial was instigated by the Court on its own motion to determine the new serious harm element of the tort of defamation. Her Honour Judge Clayton:-
- Referring to Sec 10A of the Defamation Act 2005 (Vic), stated that “The legislation was enacted as a reform to encourage certain types of claims to resolve without resort to litigation, in particular claims where damages might be modest and out of proportion to the costs of a proceeding”[xxi] and that “the intention of the legislature was to raise the threshold of seriousness required to pursue a defamation claim.”[xxii]
- noted that “Where a party makes an application, the legislation requires the element to be determined prior to the trial unless there are special circumstances. The court can also determine the element prior to trial on its own motion as occurred in this case.”[xxiii]
- Determined that “There are two kinds of harm envisaged by the legislation – harm that has already occurred and harm that is likely to occur. Evidence for each harm relies on propositions of facts which require investigation of the actual impact of the statement. Collectively the harm, whether it has occurred, or is likely to occur, must objectively be serious.”[xxiv]
- Confirmed that “the extent of publication is a ‘central factor’ in determining serious harm”.[xxv]
|The Principles in Rader v Haines
Her Honour Judge Clayton distilled and accepted the following principles from Rader v Haines  NSWCA 198 (05 October 2022) (Macfarlan and Brereton JJA, Basten AJA)[xxvi]:–
(a) Serious harm sits on the spectrum above “substantial” but below “grave”. Importantly there can be harm which, though substantial, does not reach the level of serious harm.
(b) The tendency of the words themselves to cause harm is a factor to be considered.
(c) Even where words amount to a grave allegation against a plaintiff, more than a ‘mere tendency’ of the words is required to establish the element. Special emphasis is placed on the circumstances and extent of publication.
(d) Serious harm should not be conflated with hurt to feelings, however distraught the plaintiff may be as a result of the publications.
(e) There may be serious harm without permanent harm.
(f) The extent of publication, including the grapevine effect, is a factor to be considered in assessing serious harm, as is the likelihood that the publication will come to the notice of other people.
- Observed that “Evidence as to the raw number of views a Google business page has had does not shed a great deal of light on the number of people who have seen the [Defendant’s] review. There was no evidence as to the numbers of people who had clicked on the [Defendant’s] review.”[xxvii]
- Stated that “the plaintiffs are entitled to rely on harm that has been caused since the proceedings were issued, that is not harm caused because the proceedings were issued. For example the fact that the review still exists and could continue to cause harm into the future is an appropriate matter to consider under the legislation which includes harm that is ‘likely to occur’. Harm caused because members of the public took a particular view about the merit or otherwise of the plaintiffs’ issuing legal proceedings is not harm of the kind envisaged by the legislation which requires the plaintiffs to have suffered serious harm to reputation arising from the publication.”[xxviii]
- Did not accept the Plaintiffs’ evidence of actual loss occasioned to the business, as it was “confusing”[xxix]and suggested that it would have been simpler and more effective to put before the court evidence of profit for the business (which they did not do), leaving open the inference that this evidence would not have assisted the Plaintiff’s case.[xxx]
- Found that evidence [of harm to reputation] was expressed in general terms and lacked the sort of specific particulars that would identify serious harm to reputation.[xxxi]
Decision on ‘serious harm’: Her Honour found that each of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Plaintiffs had failed to “discharge their burden to establish that the harm they have suffered is more than substantial and rises to the level of serious” pursuant to Sec 10A of the Defamation Act 2005 and dismissed their claims against the Defendant.
Hossain v Ali & Ors (Ruling)  VCC 2195
Date of Decision/Ruling: 13 December, 2022
Court: County Court of Victoria
Reason for Seeking Ruling: This was an Application by the Defendants seeking a Ruling that the serious harm element be determined prior to trial. The Plaintiff opposed the Application on the basis that there were “special circumstances” justifying the postponement of the determination to trial.
Publication Media: The Plaintiff was a member of Victoria’s Bangladeshi community. The Plaintiff commenced defamation proceedings against 5 Defendants in relation to 5 publications by the Defendants directed at Bangladeshi community members – including:-
- An email (Email 1) sent by 1st Defendant to approx. 1200 members of the Victorian Bangladeshi Community Foundation (VBC Foundation). The Plaintiff was vice-president of the VBC Foundation;
- A republication of Email 1 by 2nd Defendant on a Facebook messenger group with approx. 178 members;
- a republication of Email 1 by the 4th Defendant on a Facebook page which had around 2000 followers;
- A republication of Email 1 by the 5th Defendant on a Facebook Messenger group which had 89 members;
- An email sent by the 3rd Defendant (who was an Executive Committee member of the VBC Foundation) to the other members of the VBC Foundation Executive Committee (which has approx. 14 members in total).
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: The Plaintiff pleaded he had suffered serious harm in that he had been severely injured in reputation and standing and has therefore suffered loss and damage.
Her Honour Judge Clayton noted that the imputations, as pleaded, had “problems”[xxxii], further stating that “Mental anguish and anxiety are not relevant to the element of serious harm to reputation”[xxxiii] and that while malice and truth may be relevant to defences and damages, they are not relevant to the element of serious harm.[xxxiv]
Ruling Made: Her Honour Judge Clayton decided “there are no matters that constitute special circumstances and as a result the serious harm element should be determined prior to trial.”[xxxv]
In making Her Ruling, Her Honour considered and noted the following:-
- In this case the Application was made at a suitably early stage of the proceeding;
- The burden rests with the plaintiff to persuade the Court there are special circumstances to put off the determination to trial;[xxxvi]
- “Special circumstances are not exceptional circumstances and the bar must not be set too high.”[xxxvii]
- In considering if the costs of a separate hearing amount to ‘special circumstances’, Her Honour observed that “It is unlikely that there will be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ test for special circumstances as each case will necessarily turn on its own facts.”[xxxviii]
- In this case, the “legislation requires the Plaintiff, before initiating litigation, to carefully consider whether he can make out each element of the tort against each defendant he sues. He cannot rely on serious harm caused by one defendant to satisfy the element in his claims against other defendants for their separate publications”.[xxxix]
Ultimately, Her Honour decided:-
- She was not satisfied that it was so likely the Plaintiff would make out serious harm against each Defendant so as to make an early determination of that element a waste of time and money;[xl]
- it was not so likely that the Plaintiff would be awarded damages against each Defendant that would exceed the costs of running a trial, as to make a preliminary determination of serious harm a waste of time and money;[xli]
- while the emotional and logistical difficulties of two hearings is a factor in assessing ‘special circumstances’, “in this case it [weighed] approximately equally for each side and does not establish special circumstances.”[xlii]
- to constitute special circumstances, the degree to which the serious harm is linked to other issues in a case “must be more than the normal case”[xliii], and that in this case, it was not clear that this was so. Her Honour stated that “even if there was a link to other issues, I am not persuaded that it outweighs other considerations.”[xliv]
Doak v Birks  NSWDC 625
Date of Decision: 12 December, 2022
Court: District Court of New South Wales
Publication Media: The Plaintiff commenced defamation proceedings against the Defendant in respect of the publication of 2 posts made by the Defendant on his Facebook page and 13 responses to those posts made by others for which the Defendant is liable by reason of the principles set out in the case of Voller.[xlv] A Concerns Notice was sent on 20 April 2022 but no compliant offer was made.
The matters complained of remained available online for 81 days.
Gibson DCJ noted that the Defendant took no part in the conduct of the proceedings and filed no defence.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: The first post by the Defendant called on others on social media to attack the Plaintiff. The readers who saw the first post by the Defendant deluged both the Plaintiff’s Facebook accounts and the Defendant’s Facebook accounts. There were 204 comments and 163 emojis sent concerning the first matter complained of. In response, the Defendant published an even more vitriolic post.
Gibson DCJ found all of the imputations were conveyed as pleaded and that each of the imputations was defamatory. Judge Gibson considered the evidence and found that:-
- “the imputations were serious, and involve the wellbeing of children. Allegations of this kind are strongly indicative of the potential for serious harm.”[xlvi]
- “As to the seriousness of the imputations, allowing children to be maimed or killed out of selfish profit motives is conduct of the worst kind. Only allegations of paedophilia could be regarded as more serious.”[xlvii]
- The consequences of the defendant’s publications were devastating to the plaintiff[xlviii].
- The hurt to feelings from this unceasing campaign was extensive.[xlix]
- As well as the personal hurt, the plaintiff suffered significant damage to his business reputation.[l]
- The grapevine effect was of particular significance in the circumstances of this case;[li]
Damages Awarded: Gibson DCJ observed that as all the publications were made on the same day and on the same social media site a single figure for damages was appropriate.[lii]
Judge Gibson entered judgment for the Plaintiff for $283,358.79, made up as follows:
(a) General damages of $200,000 plus interest in the sum of $6,831.23.
(b) Aggravated damages of $50,000 plus interest in the sum of $1,707.81.
(c) Special damages of $24,000 plus interest in the sum of $819.75.
In awarding aggravated damages, Judge Gibson stated that it was the “high handed and contumelious conduct of the defendant”[liii] which warranted an additional amount to be awarded for aggravated damages. His Honour noted that “the Defendant [took] no responsibility for the severity of the matters complained of” – instead, the Defendant had subsequently published a further Facebook post of and concerning the Plaintiff, which while not reiterating the defamatory imputations, did emphasise the Defendant’s continued support of the publications that he had made about the Plaintiff.[liv]
Zimmerman v Perkiss  NSWDC 448
[NB: This was the first time that an application for determination of ‘serious harm’ under Sec 10A resulted in a hearing.] [lv]
At the start of this judgement Gibson DCJ noted that “Two days before this judgment was listed to be handed down, the decision of the New South Wales Court of Appeal in Rader v Haines  NSWCA 198 was published…[and that]…My statements of the relevant legal principles should be viewed through the prism of the principles of law as enunciated in that decision, the correctness of which I accept and follow.”[lvi]
Date of Decision: 7 October, 2022
Court: District Court of New South Wales
Publication Media: The Plaintiff was a dog-groomer who worked full-time for the defendant’s daughter, Tiarne Perkiss (“Tiarne”) in her dog-grooming business, “Perky Pooches”. The Defendant, Ms Perkiss, who had not previously been involved in the actual running of her daughter’s business, took over the running of retail shop at the front of the premises from June 2021 – also attending to administrative tasks such as accounts and payroll. After an incident on 20 September, 2021, the Plaintiff went home sick and after remaining away with medical certificates, submitted her resignation on 5 October 2021 (nominating an end of employment date of 8 October 2021) – after finding a new job working with dogs, starting the following week.
The publication in question was a short series of text messages, sent by the Defendant by Facebook Messenger on 12 October 2021 at 9:13 PM to one person only – the Plaintiff’s new employer (trading as Albion Bark) – in which allegedly defamatory allegations were made about the Plaintiff – to which the new employer replied that the Plaintiff had denied all.
Categorisation of Defamatory Material: This was a preliminary issues trial, held to determine whether a publication the subject of a claim for defamation has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the Plaintiff’s reputation – pursuant to Sec 10A of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW).
- Justice Gibson noted “When determining whether a statement ‘has caused’ serious harm, the focus is on historic harm. When determining whether a statement “is likely to” cause serious harm, the focus is on probable future harm, and it is examined in the same way”[lvii].
- The plaintiff had changed her particulars of serious harm on three occasions. Justice Gibson observed that “while the plaintiff is entitled to amend and replead her particulars of serious harm, past and/or future, a series of attempts of the kind demonstrated here may suggest that in fact no harm, serious or otherwise, has in fact occurred or was likely to occur. This was one of the submissions made by the defendant.”[lviii]
- Gibson DCJ considered the importance of the extent of publication and concluded “that the extent of publication is a central factor”[lix] – and while “limited publication is not, however, necessarily an indicator of lack of serious harm”[lx], it is the quality of the publications and not their quantity that is key[lxi]. In this case, the evidence showed that the text complained of had only been seen by one person – the Plaintiff’s new employer.
- After all submitted information and evidence, Justice Gibson noted that the ‘grapevine effect’ was abandoned and determined that the Plaintiff had not provided any evidence which supported that her reputation had suffered any harm in her new employer’s eyes at all – nor that she had “suffered anything, beyond the distress and anger she felt at being falsely accused of theft; however, that distress cannot be equated with evidence of serious harm, which must be to reputation.”[lxii]
Decision Made: Judge Gibson decided that pursuant to Sec 10A of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW) and Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 2005 (NSW) r 28.2, the Plaintiff failed to prove that publication of the matter complained of caused or was likely to cause harm to her reputation and the claim was dismissed.
This update is not intended to be a substitute for obtaining legal advice.
© Stephens Lawyers & Consultants. 5 September 2023. Authored by Katarina Klaric, Principal, Stephens Lawyers & Consultants. The contribution of Rochina Iannella, Lawyer, Stephens Lawyers & Consultants, in researching, compiling and authoring the summaries of the cases in this article is acknowledged.
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[i] Sections 10A(1) and 10A(2) Defamation Act 2005
[ii] Sections 10A(5) Defamation Act 2005
[iii] Section 10(A)(6) Defamation Act 2005
[iv] Qu v. Wilks  VSCA 198. Victoria Court of Appeal considered the meaning of “special circumstances” in Sections 10A (5) Defamation Act.
[v] Derek Brammall v Benedict Ian Stevens  ACTMC 24 at 
[vi] Ibid. at 
[vii] Ibid. at 
[viii] Ibid. at  
[ix] Wale v Hollins  QDC 116 at 
[x] Ibid. at  and 
[xi] Ibid. at 
[xii] Ibid. at 
[xiii] Ibid. at  for Justice Morzone’s discussion of the indicia of the Defendant’s lack of bona fides in this case.
[xiv] Ibid. at 
[xv] Scott v Bodley (No 2)  NSWDC 651 at 
[xvi] Ibid. at 
[xvii] Ibid. at [36.2]
[xviii] Ibid. at [36.3]
[xix] Ibid. at 
[xx] Ibid. at 
[xxi] High Quality Jewellers Pty Ltd & Ors v Ramaihi (Ruling) (2022) VCC 2240 at 
[xxii] Ibid. at 
[xxiii] Ibid. at 
[xxiv] Ibid. at 
[xxv] Ibid. at 
[xxvi] NB: The Rader v Haines decision deals with Sec 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 (UK) and not Sec 10A of the Defamation Act 2005.
[xxvii] Ibid. at 
[xxviii] Ibid. at 
[xxix] Ibid. at 
[xxx] Ibid. at 
[xxxi] Ibid. at 
[xxxii] Hossain v Ali & Ors (Ruling)  VCC 2195 at 
[xxxiii] Ibid. at 
[xxxiv] Ibid. at 
[xxxv] Ibid. at 
[xxxvi] Ibid. at 
[xxxvii] Ibid. at 
[xxxviii] Ibid. at 
[xxxix] Ibid. at 
[xl] Ibid. at 
[xli] Ibid. at 
[xlii] Ibid. at  
[xliii] Ibid. at 
[xliv] Ibid. at 
[xlv] Doak v Birks  NSWDC 625 at  The Defendant is liable pursuant to the principles set out in Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Dylan Voller; Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Dylan Voller; Australian News Channel Pty Ltd v Dylan Voller  HCA 27; 95 ALJR 767; 392 ALR 540 (“Voller”)
[xlvi] Ibid. at 
[xlvii] Ibid. at 
[xlviii] Ibid. at 
[xlix] Ibid. at 
[l] Ibid. at 
[li] Ibid. at 
[lii] Ibid. at 
[liii] Ibid. at 
[liv] Ibid. at 
[lv] Zimmerman v Perkiss  NSWDC 448 at 
[lvi] Ibid. at  and 
[lvii] Ibid. at 
[lviii] Ibid. at 
[lix] Ibid. at 
[lx] Ibid. at 
[lxi] Ibid. at 
[lxii] Ibid. at