Defamation: Libel and slander

Region: Ontario Answer # 4478

Libel and slander, known broadly as defamation, are untrue statements made by someone that are harmful to someone else’s reputation. The statements can be about a person, business, organization, group, nation, or product that tends to hurt the person’s reputation. Also, the false statements must be made to other people, not just to the person it is about. Libel refers to written statements and slander refers to oral statements. Under the law, both are grounds for a civil lawsuit.

If you are suing because your reputation was damaged due to a libelous statement, you do not have to prove that it caused you financial loss because the law presumes that you suffered a financial loss as a result of the loss of your reputation. However, you may have to prove actual financial loss if you are suing for slander. There are some limited circumstances when you do not have to prove financial loss in slander cases, including when the slanderous statement damaged your professional or business reputation.

If you are suing a newspaper, radio or television station, you must usually give them notice of your intention to sue within six weeks of learning of the incident, and start your lawsuit within three months. If you are suing someone other than a newspaper, radio or television station, you must normally start your lawsuit within two years. If you are defending such a claim, publishing an apology may help to limit the amount of damages that may be awarded.


Generally, a harmful statement will not amount to libel or slander, if one of the following defences applies:

  1. Made only to the person it is about. If it was only made to the person mentioned in the statement, and not to anyone else;
  2. True statements. If it is actually true, and the person making the statement makes the statement honestly and not maliciously;
  3. Absolute privilege applies to statements made in court (as evidence in a trial) or in parliament;
  4. Qualified privilege protects statements made non-maliciously and for well-meaning reasons. For example, if an employer is requested to give a reference for an employee, and they give a statement that is their honest opinion;
  5. Fair comment. The defence of fair comment may apply in situations where statements made were about issues of public interest, as long the comments were honest statements of opinion, based on fact. If your statements were malicious, this defence will not apply; and
  6. Responsible communication of matters of public interest. This defence is available in libel cases. It allows journalists the ability to report statements and allegations, in cases where there is a public interest in distributing the information to a wide audience. However, this defence only applies where the news was urgent, serious and of public importance, and the journalist used reliable sources and tried to report both sides of the issue.

The requirements of proving a libel or slander case are technical. For more information on pursuing a lawsuit for libel or slander, you should consult a lawyer as soon as possible to ensure that you do not miss any important deadlines.

For more information about starting a lawsuit in Ontario, visit the Ministry of the Attorney General website.


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