An Extinction Rebellion protester is removed by police in central London. Credit: The Guardian.
As the general election campaign accelerated this week, the political fall out from the publication of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry contributed to some awkward headlines for both politicians and lawmakers. However, this was by no means the only legal news of the week…
The case turned on the lawfulness of the exercise of powers by the police under section 14(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 to ban XR’s protests earlier this month.
The court ruled that in exercising section 14 powers, the police were required to identify a location to be covered by the powers conferred by the Act. Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if co-ordinated under the umbrella of one body, were not held to be one public assembly within the meaning of section 14(1). Consequently, the decision of the police to impose the condition across a wide area of London for several days was unlawful, being outwith the powers conferred by section 14(1).
Richardson v Facebook  EWHC 3154 (2 November 2015) – read judgment
An action in defamation and under the right to privacy against Facebook has been dismissed in the High Court. The Facebook entity named as defendant did not “control” the publication so as to allow liability; and even if it did, no claim under the Human Rights Act could lie against FB as it could not be described as any sort of a public authority for the purposes of Section 6 of the Act.
The claimant, acting as a litigant in person, sought damages in respect of the publication in 2013 and 2014 of a Facebook profile and a posting on the Google Blogger service. The Profile and the Blogpost each purported to have been created by the claimant, but she complained that each was a fake, created by an impostor. She claimed that each was defamatory of her, and infringed her right to respect for her private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Continue reading →
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)
The Bussey Law Firm PC & Anor v Page  EWHC 563 (QB) – read judgment
The facts of this case are simple. A defamatory comment was posted on the claimant’s Google maps directional page, implying that he was a “loser” as a lawyer and that his firm lost “80%” of cases brought to them. The defendant claimed that someone must have hacked in to his own Google account to put up the post.
There were jurisdictional complications in that the firm is situated in Colarado but these need not concern us here as Sir David Eady, sitting as a High Court judge, allowed the trial to go ahead in England. The real question was why any third party would have gone to the trouble of hacking into the defendant’s Google account in order to post the offending review; if the objective were merely to hide the hacker’s identity from the claimants, there would be the simpler option of setting up an anonymous Google account. This would in itself render the would-be publisher untraceable, and especially if it were done from a public computer. Continue reading →
Delfi AS v Estonia (Application no. 64569/09) 10 October 2013 – read judgment
This case concerned the liability of an Internet news portal for offensive comments that were posted by readers below one of its online news articles. The following summary is based on the Strasbourg Court’s press release.
The applicant company owns one of the largest internet news sites in Estonia. In January 2006, Delfi published an article on its webpage about a ferry company. It discussed the company’s decision to change the route its ferries took to certain islands. This had caused ice to break where ice roads could have been made in the near future. As a result, the opening of these roads – a cheaper and faster connection to the islands compared to the ferry services – was postponed for several weeks. Below the article, readers were able to access the comments of other users of the site. Many readers had written highly offensive or threatening posts about the ferry operator and its owner. Continue reading →
The permanent damage that internet publications can inflict is very much the focus of Tugendhat J’s assessment of damages in this case, encapsulated in the memorable description he quoted in an earlier judgment:
what is to be found on the internet may become like a tattoo.
Since the advent of internet search engines, information which in the past would have been forgotten (even if it had been received front page coverage) will today remain easily accessible indefinitely. So a libel claimant who has a judgment in his favour nevertheless risks having his name associated with the false allegations for an indefinite period.
This is just what had happened in the present case. The second defendant’s liability for libel had already been established. This hearing was to assess the appropriate level of damages for allegations he had published on the internet, in breach of restraining orders against him, suggesting the claimant was guilty of misappropriation of family funds and paedophilia. Continue reading →
The Court of Appeal has ruled that in principle, an internet service provider that allowed defamatory material to remain on a blog hosted on its platform after it had been notified of a complaint might be a “publisher” of this material, although in this case the probable damage to the complainant’s reputation over a short period was so trivial that libel proceedings could not be justified.
This interesting case suggests there may be an opening for liability of Google for defamation, if certain steps have been taken to fix them with knowledge of the offending statement. Mr Tamiz, who claimed to have been defamed by comments posted on the “London Muslim Blog” between 28 and 30 April 2011, appealed a decision in the court below to decline jurisdiction in his claim against the respondent corporation and to set aside an order for service of proceedings on Google out of the jurisdiction. Continue reading →
Mcgrath v Dawkins, Amazon and others  EWHC B3 (QB) -read judgment
In an interesting ruling on a strike-out action against a libel claim, a High Court judge has delineated the scope for defamation in blog posts and discussion threads where the audience is small and the libel limited.
The claimant, C, is the author of a book entitled “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need To Know”. Published at the same time on the same general topic, but taking the opposite side, was “The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life” by the very well-known scientist Professor Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Both books were available for purchase through the Amazon UK website run by the third defendant.
Amazon includes an online public-access facility, through which any member of the public may publish their own review of a book for sale on the site, and others may post comments on that review, or on previous comments, so creating a “thread” which may be read by any internet user worldwide. Since Prof. Hawking’s book was likely to attract far more interest among readers than C’s, he decided to raise the profile of his own work. In September 2010 he posted a purported review of the Hawking book, signed by “Scrooby”, which began by giving the details of his own book, and then went on to claim that this book “answered all doubts raised in [Hawking’s] book” and was an “antidote to this misguided book”. As the judgment continues Continue reading →
Free speech is under attack. Or so it seems. The last few weeks have been abuzz with stories to do with free speech: a Supreme Court ruling on the Reynolds defence to libel; contempt of court proceedings against an MP for comments made in a book and the latest in a growing line of criminal trials for Twitter offences. The diversity of media at the heart of these stories – print news, traditional books and online ‘micro-blogging’ – indicates the difficulty of the task for the legal system.
Flood v Times: how does this affect calls for libel reform?
On 21 March, the Supreme Court affirmed the Times newspaper’s reliance on the Reynolds defence to libel – often referred to as Reynolds privilege or the responsible journalism defence – to a claim by a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.
HH Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj v Eastern Media Group & Anor  EWHC 1294 (QB) (17 May 2010) – Read judgment
The High Court has effectively thrown out a libel action against a journalist who claimed in an article that a Sikh holy man was a “cult leader”. The judge’s reasoning was that the disputed points of religious principle were not questions which a secular court could properly decide. In refusing to rule on such cases, are the courts taking an increasingly anti-religious view, and are they now in breach of the human right to religious freedom?
The decision was reported in mid-May, but Mr Justice Eady’s judgment was made publically available yesterday. It highlights controversial issues of whether religious believes are getting a fair hearing in the English courts, and whether “secular” judges are qualified to decide points of religious principle.
Update 08/06/10: Is there no limit to the damage which restrictive libel laws can do? A Wayne Rooney biography, and possibly England’s football World Cup chances, are the latest victim of threats of libel action, says Afua Hirsch in the Guardian:
I’m not saying that information about Rooney’s background is up there with other public interest revelations that have been caught by libel law – lying politicians or innocent people dying from toxic waste, for example. On the other hand, if the Daily Star is to be believed, the book is fundamental to England’s World Cup performance. The paper claims that the book, which I haven’t read, contains “embarrassing material on the England hero” and “is threatening to derail England’s World Cup dreams.”
The law of libel and defamation sets the limits of freedom of expression. It is therefore unsurprising how many conflicting views there are on the Government’s proposed libel reforms. To keep up with this fast-moving debate, we are introducing a new feature: Libel reform watch.
We posted on Friday that the libel reform debate is hotting up now that the Coalition Government has pledged to reform the law of libel. We are following the debate because of the wide-ranging implications any significant reform will have for the law of freedom of expression, as a number of articles published over the weekend demonstrate.
The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel action against Simon Singh, in light of the stinging rebuke it received from the Court of Appeal earlier this month.
Dr Singh was being sued by the BCA in respect of an article he wrote in The Guardian (now reprinted) in April 2008, in which he said there was not enough evidence to prove that chiropractic treatment is effective against certain childhood conditions including colic and asthma.
We posted on April 1 on the preliminary decision. The Court of Appeal judges used their judgment on two preliminary issues (in particular, whether Dr Singh could use the defence of “fair comment”) to mount a robust and somewhat lyrical defence (quoting Milton, amongst other things) of the right to scientific freedom of expression.
Given the unusually strong tone of the Court of Appeal judgment, the BCA will have questioned their chances of success in the final hearing. The BCA say in their statement:
The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, has taken a very different view of the article [than Mr Justice Eady in the High Court]. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh. While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.
A claim for libel in respect of three articles in a news website’s archive has been struck out in the Hight Court by Mrs Justice Sharp. When read in context, the articles were incapable of bearing the alleged defamatory meaning, the publisher had attached Loutchansky notices to them, and it would be a disproportionate interference with the publisher’s rights under ECHR Article 10 to allow the claim to proceed where it had been brought after four years had passed since the publication of the articles.
The Claimant brought proceedings in respect of three archived articles published by the BBC in mid 2004. They related to the decision of Cambridgeshire Constabulary to withdraw an oral job offer made to the Claimant after subsequently investigating the legality of his immigration status. Within weeks of first being published, the articles became accessible only in the archive, via search engines. The action related to the articles in the archive and the related Google snippets.
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