The Defamation Act includes a procedure to offer to make amends, and it is important to act quickly to avoid cost penalties for failing to settle. The time limit for actions is 12 months.
Receiving a solicitor’s letter that threatens to sue you for defamation is extremely intimidating, especially for a person or community organisation without considerable legal or financial resources. (Free legal advice can be obtained from a community legal centre; for contact details of these centres, see Legal services that can help.)
Such threats are sometimes made to people and organisations that have commented on matters of political or public interest. Many of the defences discussed in this chapter apply to such statements made about matters of political or public interest.
It is important that you respond quickly after receiving such a letter. The “offers to make amends” procedure under the Defamation Act (s 40) contains significant cost penalties for defendants who unreasonably fail to make a settlement offer. On the other hand, a defendant who has made an early offer in accordance with the Act may rely upon the offer as a defence to any action subsequently brought against them (s 18(1)).
In Victoria, most defamation cases are heard by a judge and jury. They can be heard in any of the state courts, depending on the amount of damages sought. Legal action must be commenced within 12 months of the defamatory material being published, although that period may be increased with the court’s permission.