The lawyer lost 80% of his clients after the negative review was posted
An Adelaide lawyer has been awarded a $750,000 defamation payout against a woman who posted a negative review of his practice on Google.
Barrister Gordon Cheng, described in the Supreme Court of South Australia judgment handed down last week as a “well respected member of the legal profession,” became aware in late 2018 and early 2019 that a large number of his clients had left his practice for other lawyers. Cheng’s practice receives most of its referrals by word of mouth, the court said.
Cheng, 66, was informed by a former client on 28 February 2019 that he had a negative review on Google My Business written by a certain “Isabel Lok.” Cheng, who later identified the defendant as Wai Man Isabella Lok, told the court that by that time, he had already lost about 80% of his clients.
Lok wrote the following review in October 2018, which she also posted in Chinese:
“Stay clear of this place! Gordon brings shame to all lawyers and is infamous for his lack of professionalism amongst the law society in Adelaide. He is only concerned about how to get most of your money by giving you false and misleading advices, and convincing you to go to court when it is clear that he doesn’t have a case to win.”
Cheng issued a concerns notice and lodged a complaint with Google on 12 March 2019. Two days later, the name on the review was changed from “Isabel Lok” to “Bel.”
Under her father’s name “Peter,” Lok posted another review of Cheng’s practice on 20 April., saying: “Bad Lawyer! Not at all reliable.”
On 22 April 2019, Cheng then met with the plaintiff’s father, whom he said he has known for about a decade, although never represented as a client. Peter said that he did not write the negative review published under his name and then called his daughter in Cheng’s presence. Cheng said that the father and daughter had a heated argument.
After being served by Cheng with the summons and statement of claim on 24 April 2019, Lok then changed the name on the review from “Bel” to “Cindy.” On the same day, Cheng had also posted the concerns notice, summons, and statement of claim on Google My Business, which took down the review on 30 April 2019.
On 20 May 2019, the defendant posted another review of the plaintiff’s practice under the name “JYL” that read: “Poor service.”
Cheng responded to the review posted by “JYL” and said that the firm’s database showed that “JYL” has never been a client nor ever consulted with the firm. “JYL” said that the database was “incomplete” and that “I did consult with you.” When Cheng asked for the full name and the subject of the consultation, the defendant did not further respond.
Master of the Supreme Court Katrina Bochner, who penned the judgment, said that she was satisfied that the plaintiff had never met the defendant and has never been retained as her lawyer. It also said that save for interactions through Google My Business, the two have never had any contact.
“The only conclusion that can be drawn is that her intention was to destroy the plaintiff’s livelihood, and cause him distress, anxiety and financial hardship,” the judgment said.
The plaintiff “went to extraordinary lengths to serve the defendant,” the court said, while she had never responded to the summons and statement of claims, as well as never appeared in the matter either personally or through a solicitor.
“The defendant has made no offer of amends. She has made no apology. She refused to withdraw the review. She has not responded to service of the summons and statement of claim or of the default judgment. Her conduct in evading service has added to the cost and delay in this matter,” the court said.
Bochner also said that she had no doubt that Cheng’s practice suffering a loss for the first time in 20 years caused him “great hurt and distress.” Cheng had claimed that he suffered anxiety and depression because of the ordeal.
The judge accepted the assessment conducted by Karen Phu, Cheng’s accountant, that found the practice lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income after the negative review was posted. Phu found that the practice had an average gross monthly income of $57,000 before the review, which plummeted to $7,286.50 per month in the four-month period immediately after the review was posted. In that period, the practice also suffered a net trading loss of -$60,618, the accountant said.
In the four months after the review was posted, the gross monthly income rose to $9,388.31, but the practice suffered a trading loss of -$71,687.96. That’s in contrast to the practice’s net pre-tax profit of $193,801 in the four months preceding the review.
Phu assessed the total loss of income, including loss of future income, to be $631,229. She assessed the plaintiff’s economic loss, including the loss of goodwill, at $927,375.
Bochner said, however, that contingencies needed to be taken into account, including of the business recovering faster than Phu predicted and other unforeseen circumstances occurring that may affect future profitability of the practice.
Bochner awarded economic damages of $550,000 and general and aggravated damages of $200,000. Lok will also have to pay Cheng’s costs.