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Adelaide lawyer's huge payout over bad online review

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An Adelaide lawyer who lost 80 per cent of his clients after someone he’d never met posted a negative online review of his business has won a $750,000 defamation payout.

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Gordon Cheng has practised law in South Australia since the early 1990s, drawing most his clients from Adelaide’s Chinese community, and among Chinese nationals overseas.

He offers pro bono legal advice for Chinese speakers in Adelaide, is a member of the Law Society and has been legal advisor to the Australian Chinese Medical Association since its inception in 1994.

In a Supreme Court judgement handed down yesterday, he is described as a well-respected member of the legal profession, who began losing clients in late 2018.

Cheng gave evidence that during the case that he received a phone call in February 2019, informing him that a negative review had been posted on the website Google My Business.

By then, he told the court, 80 per cent of his clients were already gone.

The review, posted in both English and Chinese under the name “Isabel Lok” on about October 18, 2018, said:

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 (sic.), and convincing you to go to court when it is clear that he doesn’t have a case to win.

After some investigation, Cheng discovered the reviewer was Wai Man Isabella Lok, whom he had never met, and who had never been a client of his practice.

A fortnight after he was alerted to the existence of the review, Cheng issued a concerns notice and lodged a complaint with Google.

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

Two days passed, then Lok changed the name on the review from “Isabel Lok” to “Bel”.

The following month, Lok posted a further review on the website, under the name of her father, Peter, which read:

Bad Lawyer! Not at all reliable.

Cheng met with Peter Lok – whom he had known for about a decade, although he had never acted as his lawyer.

Lok confirmed he had not written the review and phoned his daughter in Cheng’s presence.

According to the lawyer’s evidence to the court, the pair argued on the phone.

Cheng served Wai Man Isabella Lok with a summons and a statement of claim for defamation, after which she changed the name on the first review from “Bel” to “Cindy”.

That review was deleted on April 30.

Nonetheless, Lok posted a further review on May 20, under the name “JYL”:

Poor service.

Cheng replied to the latest review, indicating that the writer had never been a client and never attended his practice for any reason.

Lok responded that she had had a consultation with Cheng – but when he asked for her full name and the subject of the consultation she provided no reply.

According to the judgement of Master of the Supreme Court Katrina Bochner, over the course of the saga, Cheng was forced to retrench a law clerk and an associate because he could no longer afford to pay them.

I have no doubt that the fact that his business suffered a loss for the first time in 20 years was a matter of great hurt and distress to him.

And an assessment by Cheng’s accountant Karen Phu, presented to the court, suggested the business had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income following the initial review.

Bochner writes in her judgement that since Cheng and Lok had never met, and since he had never acted as Lok’s lawyer, “there can be no question that the defendant (Lok) was not acting in good faith”.

“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 reads.

“The defendant has made no offer of amends. She has made no apology. She refused to withdraw the review.

“She has not responded to the service of the summons and statement of claim or of the default judgement. Her conduct in evading service has added to the cost and delay in this matter.”

Gordon Cheng Barristers and Solicitors offices on Pulteney Street in the city. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Bochner accepted Phu’s evidence that the average gross income of Gordon Cheng Barristers and Solicitors was $57,684 per month before the publication of the review.

In the four months immediately after the review was published, that average monthly figure fell to $7287.

The business went from a net pre-tax profit of $193,801 in the four months before the publication to a net trading loss of -$60,618 over the subsequent four months, according to the judgment.

Phu’s ultimate assessment of Cheng’s economic losses, including loss of goodwill and loss of future income, amounted to $927,375.

Although the accountant’s evidence went unchallenged, Judge Bochner ruled that contingencies including the possibility the business might recover more quickly than predicted, should be taken into account.

Bochner ruled total that economic damages were $550,000.

She also accepted that Cheng suffered “great distress as a result of the publication”, including “great anxiety as a result of the downturn in his business, and to retrench staff”.

“I have no doubt that the fact that his business suffered a loss for the first time in 20 years was a matter of great hurt and distress to him.”

The Judge awarded Cheng a further $200,000 in general and aggravated damages, bringing the total award of damages to $750,000.

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