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28 January 2015

Maybe you should be ‘a hell of a lot carefuller’: Defamation, Facebook and Family Law

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Clients often ask us if they can sue their former spouse for defamation, particularly after reading hurtful statements in court documents.

Defamation is injuring the esteem in which a person is held by the community – the test is would an ordinary, reasonable reader think less of the person as a result of the statements.  It follows that a person must have a good character to be defamed. Truth is a defence but it must be proved by the person who made the defamatory statement.

In a recent case in Western Australia a Bunbury woman, Robyn Greeuw, was ordered to pay $12,500 (plus her former partner’s costs of a 10 day trial) after she was unable to prove domestic violence allegations made in a Facebook post.

In the post, Ms Greeuw wrote “Separated from Miro Dabrowski after 18 years of suffering domestic violence and abuse. Now fighting the system to keep my children safe.”  The post was seen by numerous people who gave evidence, including Mr Dabrowski’s brother in law, his girlfriend (who then decided for a period of time not to see him any more) and his sister.

Ms Greeuw removed the post after receiving a letter from Mr Dabrowski’s lawyer, although she did not apologise for statement. In the subsequent Court hearing she failed to impress the Judge. He said:-

Domestic violence and abuse by its very nature usually occur in the matrimonial home and in the absence of independent witnesses. I accept that defamation findings can be made solely on the evidence of one partner against the other.

However, Ms Greeuw’s credibility is so badly affected by the matters to which I have referred that it leads to the conclusion that she is prepared to say or write whatever she thinks will suit her case and I would not be prepared to accept her evidence unless it is supported by independent evidence or documents contemporaneously made with the events she now complains of.

No such independent evidence was made available. Judge Bowden found that Mr Dabrowski had been defamed and made the order that Ms Greeuw pay him $12,500 as a reparation for the harm done and for vindication of his reputation. As she was entirely unsuccessful in the litigation, she was also ordered to pay costs.

The case has attracted quite a lot of interest and, unlike family law proceedings where it is an offence to publish information that may identify a party to those proceedings, the identity of the parties are revealed.

Ms Greeuw told the Judge that the defamation proceedings ‘frightened’ her and that she would be ‘a hell of a lot carefuller…’ in the future. Maybe we all should be!

Please contact us if we can assist with your family law matter.

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