Could tweeting cost your house?

Lalit Modi/AP/Press Association Images

A landmark case has become the first to find someone guilty in England for libel on Twitter, after Justice David Bean found ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League Lalit Modi (pictured) guilty of having libeled former New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns on Twitter.

So what happened, and what does this mean for you?

The case

According to a Daily Telegraph report, Cairns was forced to leave the Indian Cricket League in October 2008 for failing to reveal an existing ankle injury. Modi later wrongly tweeted a suggestion that the sacking had been for corruption

The judge spent eight days considering his verdict, and concluded that Modi "singularly failed to provide any reliable evidence that Cairns was involved in match fixing or spot fixing."

Cairns issued a statement saying: "Today's verdict lifts a dark cloud that has been over me for the past two years. I am proud that I have had the courage to stand up and to defend my name and great relief that I can once again walk into any cricket ground in the world with my head held high."

Modi will have to pay damages of £90,000 and costs, which have been estimated at anything from £400,000 to £1.5 million. He has been granted leave to appeal the level of damages.

What about you?

While the details of the case are clearly very specific, it raises the issue of just how much trouble a tweet can get a person into.

We don't think much before we tweet, but there's every chance that an ill-considered word or two could cross the line into libel. The fact is that if you say anything untrue about anyone in writing which could cause the average man in the street to think less of him or her, then you are guilty of libel.

In the past there was some question as to whether publishing on something like Twitter was really libel, or whether it should be the same sort of offence as when you say something verbally - slander - which carries much smaller penalties.

This case puts that suggestion to bed, and raises the stakes.

Damages

Worryingly, according to a survey by law firm DLA Piper 68% of Twitter users in the UK have "little or no awareness of their legal responsibilities", which means we may well be increasing our risks.

Traditionally, damages relate to the damage done. However, in this case, Michael Clavell-Bate, partner in the Commercial Dispute Resolution group at international law firm Eversheds points out: "The High Court has heard that Lalit Modi's tweet was removed within 16 hours and was probably read by between 35 and 100 people in England and Wales. It has also heard that the events in question in the case all occurred in India. The Court has already decided however that the limited readership of the tweet in England and Wales was not of itself sufficient reason for the claim to be struck out."

It means that an idle comment to a hundred or so followers could land you in very hot water. Clavell-Bate says: "This case shows just how careful people should be when posting statements on the internet, wherever and however they are made."
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