It’s an all too common occurrence – tempers can flare when people are forced to come into contact with others that they wouldn’t usually associate with. When there are differing views in a strata scheme (whether about the standard of caretaking, management, decisions made by the committee, or just disputes between different lot owners) it can often devolve into one side taking their dispute too far and making false or damaging statements about the other. That is where the law of defamation can step in to help.
Defamation can take many forms, but by far the most common medium for defamatory publications in the body corporate context is email.
In 2018 the District Court of Queensland dealt with a case where, following a “minor altercation” between two lot owners in a body corporate scheme, one of the owners sent an email to the committee and body corporate manager where he complained that the other owner had to “cut a line direct to me [and] got in front of me babbling about [body corporate business]” and that “I had to physically push my way past the fool more than once, if I did not have my son and carrying bank deposit book and a shopping bag I would have knocked his head off”.
CCTV footage showed that defendant’s recollection of events, published to the committee and manager was untrue – the plaintiff did not block the defendant, and in fact the defendant was seen to be in “an aggressive frame of mind” by the trial judge, while the plaintiff “did not appear to be at all aggressive”. The court found that the email to the committee defamed the plaintiff by accusing him of being aggressive and acting in a way that would have entitled the defendant to “knock his head off”. The plaintiff was awarded $12,840 by the Court.
Recently, the District Court of New South Wales  considered a case where an owner sent an email to 17 owners in a strata scheme asking whether the committee had become a “‘Peeping Tom’ committee”, when his tenant had complained about the chairperson “attempting to look through the windows”. The chairperson had been inspecting windows that were damaged during a storm.
The email caused the chairperson’s employer to commence an investigation into him (which immediately cleared him of any wrongdoing). He sued the lot owner and was ultimately awarded $20,600 (plus costs) by the District Court.
Any publication (whether in writing, pictures, video, or spoken) that may cause a person seeing or hearing it to think less of someone else may be defamatory.
To take action against someone for defamation, you need to be able to prove:
- that the defamatory material was published to someone other than yourself;
- that there was not a proper basis for making the publication (i.e., the matters in it were not supported by proper evidence);
- that the people that the publication was made to understood that it was referring to you; and
- that it caused harm to your reputation.
If you believe you have been defamed it is important that you seek advice as soon as possible – the timeframe for bringing an action is only 1 year, and there are numerous defences. It is also important to strike while the iron is hot and while the defamatory material is fresh in people’s mind.
If you think you have been defamed, or have been accused of defaming someone else, we can help you to protect your reputation. Please reach out to discuss your options.
by Ben Seccombe & Ben Sandford
 Matthews v Pigram  NSWDC 526