Injunction and damages in libel case awarded against anonymous website
17 September 2015
Brett Wilson LLP v Person(s) Unknown, Responsible for the Operation of the Website solicitorsfromhell.co.uk, 7 September (Warby J)  EWHC 2628 (QB) – read judgment
This was a claim in libel by a firm of solicitors who acted for another firm which also claimed against the operators of SFHUK, causing the original site to be shut down (Law Society v Rick Kordowski ). In this case the words complained of appeared on a new site, but despite efforts by the present claimants, it was not possible to find out who was operating it. The site alleged various aspects of mismanagement, including incompetence and fraud. It also quoted a client of the claimant firm who alleged overcharging and who refused to pay their fees. (It is worth noting that the site appears to have been taken down since default judgement was given in this case)
Background to the litigation
A letter of claim dated 20 February 2015 was emailed to an “info@” address of SFHUK.com, but received no response. In April this year the Law Society and the claimant obtained a Norwich Pharmacal order against Anonymous Speech, the company operating the server by proxy, requiring it to disclose identifying information in relation to the owner/operator of SFHUK.com. The order provided for its service by email to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com and two physical addresses, one in Tokyo and the other in Panama. There was no response. So when, on 28 July 2015, the claimants started this action claiming damages for libel and an injunction to restrain the continued publication of the words complained of, they issued their claim form against “Persons Unknown responsible for the operation and publication of the website [SFUK.com]”.The legitimacy of the “persons unknown” procedure has been recognised for years, made necessary by the elusive nature of some website operators. In this case, the defendant made no response at all to the service of the Particulars of Claim and Response Pack.
In the light of this, the claimants sought judgement in default. The court in such circumstances is required to consider the right of the defendant to receive notice, and also Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 which was engaged because the order the claimants sought involved “relief which, if granted, might affect the exercise of the Convention right to freedom of expression” within the meaning of s 12(1). Section 12(2) prohibits the court from granting such relief if the respondent is neither present nor represented, unless satisfied
(a) that the applicant has taken all reasonable steps to notify the respondent; or (b) that there are compelling reasons why the respondent should not be notified.
Decision of the Court
Warby J had no doubt that the claim would have come to the attention of those responsible for the operation of SFHUK.com. He concluded that the reason why the defendants were not present or represented at this hearing is that they wished to remain anonymous, and were “hiding”.
They have decided, in my judgment, to avoid engaging with the court process. I see no reason not to proceed in their absence. On the contrary, there is good reason to proceed in their absence. Any other course would lead to delay and further cost, without any justification.
The judge was also satisfied that the requirements of Section 10 of the Defamation Act 2013 had been fulfilled, in that the defendants named as “Persons Unknown” were “editors” of the words complained of, even though it was not alleged that they were authors or publishers of the allegations. The court therefore had jurisdiction to consider the libel claim.
The Particulars of Claim alleged that the defendants’ words had a number of defamatory meanings, including that
The Claimant is a shameless, corrupt, fraudulent, dishonest, unethical, incompetent and oppressive firm of solicitors which does not provide competent services, has had a justified complaint made against them and whose wrongdoing should be exposed to prevent others from suffering by instructing them.
The judge was satisfied that these allegations had caused the claimants financial harm. The firm, which has been in existence for only five years, is a small boutique business which relies on much of its work coming from internet searches.
Where work comes from a different source, it is usual for the prospective client to undertake some sort of ‘due diligence’, this would typically involve a Google search. For six months, Google searches for Brett Wilson LLP or Brett Wilson solicitors had produced the following result within the top five listings, immediately below links to the firm’s own website:
“SOLICITORS FROM HELL – Brett Wilson LLP Solicitors …
[web address given]
Rude, intimidating and threatening. Clients should stay well away from Brett Wilson Solicitors.Have you complained about your solicitor and got nowhere?”
iv) “… the publication has been read, and will inevitably continue to be read, by a number of prospective clients considering instructing the Claimant and undertaking research on the Claimant’s reputation” (para 22 of the Particulars of Claim).
The claimant also believed that there had been a “noticeable drop” in the conversion of enquiries from prospective clients to instructions over the past six months. Warby J was satisfied that the pleaded allegations made out a case for the grant of injunctions against the defendants. As required by Section 12 of the Human Rights Act, the judge had to have particular regard to the effect of such an injunction on the defendant’s right to free speech. Such interference was justified by the legitimate aim of protecting the claimants reputation of the claimant against false and damaging allegations of misconduct.
I bear in mind that it is contrary to the public interest for false or misleading information to be issued on matters of this kind.
As for the remedy, the judge accepted the claim for summary relief under Section 9 of the Defamation Act 1996, which limits damages to £10,000. The procedure was invoked here in order to bring a swift end to the matter and avoid assessment proceedings which might well have been disproportionately expensive. The claimant also sought both prohibitory and mandatory injunctions, including the removal from the World Wide Web of specified webpages, and the removal from the SFHUK.com website of any metadata or search engine links which refer to the claimant as ‘solicitors from hell’ or ‘lawyers from hell’.
Although Warby J “hesitated” over these mandatory orders, given that they would impose obligations which the defendants might be unable in practice to perform, he was ultimately satisfied that these aspects of the order sought were legitimate, given the way the defendants were described and defined.
As noted at the top of this post, the injunctions appear to have been successful.
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