Taking revenge on a client who doesn't pay: is it legal?

Digital Arts | 04 February 13

We speak to a lawyer from Olswang following our story on the web designer who replaced a client's site with a image of an invoice.

Last week we reported on the tactics of a web designer who had replaced the sites of a client who she ciaimed had not paid her bills with a JPG of the invoice. We attempted to contact the designer to check its veracity, who has not responded. The story caught the imagination off many of our readers, some of whom questioned the legality of this kind of 'revenge'. We caught up with Ashley Hurst (above), a partner at media specialist law firm Olswang to find out if this kind of behaviour will end you up in court.

(We should mention here that while the story we reported was in the US, both Ashley and Digital Arts in the UK, and his comments refer to behaviour in this country).

DA: While the kind of revenge carried out by the designer we've featured is appealing, can it get you in trouble legally?

AH: "It is a slightly risky strategy. The main risk of a similar strategy in the UK would be a libel claim. The posting of the allegedly unpaid invoice would be tantamount to a statement that the customer doesn't or can't afford to pay its debts, which is defamatory.

"If that allegation is true, it's fine – but if there is a legitimate reason for not paying or if the customer has paid, the web developer could be on the receiving end of a libel claim."

DA: Is taking down a website a legitimate course of action if a client hasn't paid you?

AH: "It will depend on the terms of the contract but potentially yes. Most website developers and hosts will reserve the right to suspend the website or stop carrying on their services if they don't get paid on time.

"There would be no libel risk if the website developer simply took the website down. Making a public statement is more risky – it might speed payment up though if the debtor is worried about damage to its reputation."

A screengrab of the invoice that was posted to the Baltimore Reggae Jerk Festival and Carribean Dutch Pot Restaurant websites

DA: What's the best course of action to get what you're owed from UK-based client who hasn't paid you?

AH: "If the debt is undisputed, issuing a statutory demand is often the preferred route. The debtor will then have 21 days to pay or else face the risk of a winding up petition. If the debt is disputed – for example, if the debtor thinks he didn't get what he bargained for – the better route will be to sue or threaten to sue for breach of contract."

DA: What about if they're overseas?

AH: "If the debtor is overseas, there might be an issue over which country has jurisdiction to decide any dispute as to non-payment. But normally the standard terms of the developer will state which country has jurisdiction and so the creditor can sue in that jurisdiction and then seek to enforce the judgment oversees with cooperation of local courts if necessary."


Alicia said: I just saw this website which I'm sure is a way at getting back at a non paying customer. Made me laugh. www.mitchell-johnson.net

Donmac said: I had no contract other than a brief from the client and they a quote from myself stating what they would get for the price. 50% was paid up front. After the client okaying the design route and me then building the site at their behest, they refused to pay and do not respond to my correspondence. I have removed the site from their server as a result and am willing to walk away as I don't need the hassle anymore. Surely I am within my rights to remove my IP from their server

JohnnyQ said: Prevention is better than cure. Always get 50% up front, and always get the final payment before handing over any completed work. That way you can easily avoid getting ripped off and dealing with deadbeat clients.

Farigo said: Just put up a notice like it's been hacked and something rude...

PieFoundry said: Quite interesting about the libel stuff - also to consider using is the small claims court. Or, good old fashioned hassling...