Iqbal v Dean Manson Solicitors
Reference:  EWCA Civ 123
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Rix, Smith, and Richards LJJ
Date of judgment: 15 Feb 2011
Summary: Harassment - Protection from Harassment Act 1997 - Written correspondence - Course of conduct
Download: Download this judgment
Instructing Solicitors: Appellant in person; Thompson & Co for the Respondents
A civil claim in harassment was brought by C, a solicitor-advocate, against a small firm of solicitors (D) by whom he used to be employed. C’s complaint arose from a series of three letters which contained allegations about C’s professional and personal integrity. Amongst other things, the letters alleged that C had been summarily dismissed from D due to his ‘insubordination and reckless conduct’, had misled the Law Society and was using clients to settle a vendetta against D. The Defence served in the action made further allegations against C, including bigamy and immigration fraud.
Judge Ellis in the county court held that the three letters disclosed ‘no credible cause of action’ and could not be construed as harassment under the Act. On appeal, Teare J in the High Court held that the first two letters were not capable of being “oppressive or unreasonable” (Thomas v News Group Newspapers). However, the third letter was arguably capable of being described as harassing but it was only one instance and did not form a “course of conduct” as required under the Act. The judge further held that the Defence could not amount to an occasion of harassment because it post-dated the claim form and the relevant passages could be struck out if necessary.
(1) Whether any of the three letters were capable of constituting harassment;
(2) Whether, if any of the letters were not capable of constituting harassment by themselves, they could amount, together with the third letter, to a “course of conduct” within the meaning of the Act;
(3) Whether the terms of the Defence could be relied upon as evidencing a course of conduct within the Act even though it post-dated the claim form.
(1) It was entirely arguable that each of the three letters could by themselves stand as an occasion capable of being harassing; however, they were particularly harassing when viewed in the light of each other. It did not assist D that the letters were written in the context of litigation because the letters went well beyond the scope of the proceedings. They arguably evidenced a campaign of harassment which was capable of causing C alarm and distress.
(2) The question of harassment had to be considered by reference to a “course of conduct” as a whole, and not by reference to each individual occasion relied on. The three letters in this case constituted a course of conduct which was capable of constituting harassment within the meaning of the Act.
(3) C was entitled to refer to the Defence as throwing evidential light on the proper understanding, interpretation and assessment of the three letters themselves. In any event, there was no reason why C could not also rely on the Defence as a separate occasion constituting a course of conduct and thus supplementing his cause of action.
An important Court of Appeal decision on harassment. It is the course of conduct which has to have the quality of amounting to harassment, rather than individual instances of conduct. The reason why the statute is written in terms of a “course of conduct” is not difficult to understand. Take the typical case of stalking or malicious phone calls: when the defendant walks past the claimant’s door, or calls the claimant’s telephone and hangs up, the single act by itself may be neutral, but if the act is repeated on a number of occasions, the course of conduct may become harassment. That conclusion is only arrived at by looking at the acts as a whole.