Full case report

Coulson v Wilby

Reference [2014] EWHC 3404 (QB)
Court High Court (Queen's Bench Division)

Judge HHJ Parkes QC

Date of Judgment 21 Oct 2014


Summary

Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – interim injunction – online publications


Facts

C1, C2 and C3 were casework managers in the Wakefield or Sale offices of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). D1 was the author and operator of a website with the address www.upsd.co.uk. D1 was the respondent to an application by all 3 Cs in the first action. D2 was the author of a blog hosted at grandmabarbara.wordpress.com and was the respondent in a second action to an application made only by the 3rd C in the first action.

D1 claimed responsibility for “investigative reporting of public authority misconduct in West & North Yorkshire (and) Greater Manchester”. The contents of D1’s Unprofessional standards department (“UPSD”) website were republished on related Twitter and Facebook accounts.  D1 also created a UPSD newsletter which targeted the West Yorkshire Police Service (WYPS), and the offices of the Police and Crime Commissioner and the IPCC, and sent copies to IPCC staff.

D2’s responsibility for the blog was evident from the blog, and from evidence that its contents were retweeted on the page of @PeterHofschroer and on the Facebook account in his name, from which the Cs’ solicitors had been blocked.

C3 was a senior casework manager at the IPCC and came into contact with D1 when he made a successful complaint against WYPS. She asserted that she was the victim of a network of malicious bloggers led by D1. She referred to personal comments and attacks in his newsletter and to a protest outside the IPCC office at which she had been targeted. She also complained of an article on the UPSD website which contained hurtful, offensive and unfair allegations about her. She also alleged that the contents of the UPSD website had been copied over to other websites. She referred to the prominence of the UPSD site in searches for her nane. Other pages from the UPSD website contained hurtful or offensive material about C3. She had plainly been deeply affected and traumatised by what had been said about her.

C2 was also a casework manager for the IPCC, at the Sale office. D1 had also published material about her on the UPSD website. The allegations were untrue, and were a breach of her privacy. She also referred to material published on Twitter and to the UPSD web pages’ prominence in search results. Like C3 she had been deeply affected by what had been published.

C1 was another IPCC casework manager, based at Wakefield. He complained of matters published on different pages. He identified references from a number of different web pages and a tweet from D1. The allegations were of lying, dishonesty, dereliction of duty and corruption. He recounted an alarming incident which he believed was connected to the UPSD website, involving a telephone call threatening C1, his wife and family. He contacted the police who found an improvised explosive device and a police uniform at the individual’s property. He also referred to the publications’ effect on Google search. His understandable distress particularly took the form of fear for his safety and that of his family.

In a separate action by C3 against D2, C3 referred to complaints about the North Yorkshire police in connection with a family dispute involving his brother and parents. They were found to be unsubstantiated or applications to dispense with the need to investigate them were granted by the IPCC.

A WordPress blog was set up which contained publications about the police, the IPCC and relating to C3. Their contents were retweeted on a Twitter page and on Facebook. C3 was concerned about the appearance of her name in Google search rankings. She maintained that the allegations were untrue, and explained how upset she was by what had been published. Her distress was acute.


Issue

Should the Cs be granted interim injunctive relief to restrain the defendants from harassing them and to compel them to take down internet postings?


Held

Granting the injunctions sought:

The relevant conduct had occurred on at least two occasions and had targeted each of the Cs. The allegations in question were calculated to cause alarm and distress, going a long way beyond that which is merely unattractive and unreasonable. They were properly described as oppressive and as tormenting the Cs, who were public servants deserving of protection against those who launch campaigns of vilifications against them.

There was no material suggesting a defence to the claim of harassment, and no basis for a defence under s1(3) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. While the conduct of officials performing a public service is capable of being a matter of substantial public interest, there was nothing to suggest that such an interest was present here. Such a public interest did not extend to the personal abuse and vilification levelled at the Cs. The Cs were likely to establish at trial that publication should not be allowed.


Comment

The Judge took the approach to the online publications taken by Tugendhat J in Law Society v Kordowski [2014] EMLR 2, where he accepted submissions on behalf of the claimants that on-going publication on a website of their names, in the knowledge that it would inevitably come to their attention, constituted harassment on at least two or more occasions. This judgment demonstrates that this is becoming a well-established route for those seeking to put an end to distressing online publications in which they feature.


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Instructing Solicitors

Cohen Cramer for the Cs.