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X is currently involved in a legal battle with said ex-wife regarding child abuse by parental alienation of his child. X, with a friend in a similar position, created a private support group on WhatsApp mostly consisting of close friends. The content of the group is mostly banter, updates on the situation and venting, some of which was directed towards the religious leader of their community, his apathy and lack of support.

Recently, this religious leader has threatened legal action and damages through loss of charity donations, claiming malicious falsehood. Below are a sample of the publications:

"[he] has sinned greatly"

"He has done nothing ... anyone who remains silent is playing a role in the abuse"

"He is unfit to be a leader .. he is a liar ... he should resign"

Additional a complaint was filed to his superiors claiming that he was violating safeguard protocols, which is being used as evidence of harassment.

The group is private and there is a confidential code of conduct, meaning either there is a mole or the group was illegally accessed.

  1. Does criticizing public figures constitute libel especially in a private group?

  2. Does X have a counterclaim for illegally accessing the data?

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  • Is the question specific to an online private conversation? Or just a private setting in which a group of people can receive the communication (such as a get together)? – grovkin Mar 13 at 21:02
  • The former, online private conversation – alakfq Mar 13 at 21:55
  • "Does criticizing public figures constitute libel". No, but those comments are not criticism, they are direct attacks. Compare "I found the play so boring I fell asleep" with "The author is incompetent"; the first is about yourself and your reaction to the play, the second is about the author. The first is criticism, the second is slander. ¶ Do you know beyond any doubt that "he has sinned greatly", that "he has done nothing", that "he is unfit", that "he is a liar"? Or is that just "venting"? There's a big difference. – Ray Butterworth Mar 14 at 1:57
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Does criticizing public figures constitute libel especially in a private group?

It depends on the specifics, but a priori your description suggests that the defense of honest opinion would be applicable. This is regardless of whether the subject is a public figure and regardless of whether the statements were in private --albeit non-privileged-- communications.

Case law surely provides guidelines or precedents on how the details and circumstances of the events would fare on the parties' legal position, but I am not knowledgeable of UK/English law.

Does X have a counterclaim for illegally accessing the data?

The matter seemingly depends on how the religious leader had or gained access to the data. Even if he gained access by stealing or hacking a device or account, X would not have standing to [counter-]sue unless the device or account belongs to X.

Be mindful of the possibility that third party might have made the disclosure to the religious leader. In that case, actionability (if any) of the disclosure only encompasses the third party, not the religious leader. X's intent that his statements stay only among the participants does not necessarily imply that participants' disclosure elsewhere is unlawful.

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It does not matter at all whether the statement you made is "private" in the sense that you only told one other person. Defamation is "making a false, damaging statement to a third party", so just one third party person is all it takes. However, critical opinions as to having sinned etc. are neither false nor true, whether the person is a public figure of a very private recluse. It is unlikely that any person has a legal claim against another based on violating the group terms of use, since in the worst case, service provider would just boot the violator off the website for the violation.

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  • Isn't public interest also a factor though? If a religious leader is corrupt or inept isn't in the congregation's interest to know? – alakfq Mar 14 at 5:00
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    @alakfq if they are then you have the defense of truth – Dale M Mar 14 at 6:24
  • @DaleM and if the claim cannot be substantiated either way? I was under the impression that, similar to Reynolds defence, it offers a protection – alakfq Mar 14 at 7:01

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