Brett Wilson LLP v Person(s) Unknown [2015]

In Brett Wilson LLP v Person(s) Unknown, Responsible for the Operation and Publication of the Website [2015] EWHC 2628 (QB) (16 September 2015) Mr Justice Warby noted in his judgment that the Claimants were a “’boutique’ firm of solicitors based in London” who have been in operation for five years, attracting a majority of their work from the internet.

For about six months, google searches for the Claimant had produced results with links to their website describing them as “SOLICITORS FROM HELL” and “Rude, intimidating and threatening”.

The Claimants were unable to ascertain who operated the Solicitors from Hell website. The WHOIS registry listed the owners of the website as ‘Anonymous Speech’ which Mr Justice Warby observed was a proxy restraint service claiming to regularly move its servers to other countries and dismiss court orders served in the EU or USA.

The Claimants issued their letter of claim on the 20th February 2015 to the info address of the Solicitors from Hell website but did not receive a reply.

On the 24th April 2015 both the Law Society and Claimant obtained a Norwich Pharmacal Order against Anonymous Speech to disclose information as to its owner but there was no reply.

The Claimant commenced proceedings on the 28th July 2015 to Persons Unknown and were granted permission to serve all the documentation by email to the two contact addresses of Anonymous Speech, referred to in the Order.

On the 19th August 2015 the Claimants issued an application before Mr Justice Warby under CPR 12.3 (1) and 12.4(2) seeking default judgment and summary disposal of the case under s.8 of the Defamation Act 1996 with relief for damages, injunction and costs.

Mr Justice Warby addressed the first issue being the absence of the Defendants. He decided to adopt the approach he had identified in the case of Sloutsker v Romanova in 2015. He was satisfied that the Claimants had taken appropriate steps to notify and allow the Defendants sufficient time in which to reply. He observed that the reason why the Defendants were not at the Hearing was they wanted to remain unknown “and are “hiding”. He therefore could not see any reason not to proceed with the action.

Mr Justice Warby accepted counsel for the Claimant’s submission that he follow the case, which was before him, of Sloutsker v Romanova where the court dealt with the matter of the default judgment on the basis that the particulars of claim were unchallenged.

Mr Justice Warby noted s.10 of the Defamation Act 2013 provides the same meaning for ‘author’ ‘editor’ and ‘publisher’ as in s.1. of the Defamation Act 1996.

In this case, he considered the Defendants fell within the meaning of ‘editor’, “a person having editorial or equivalent responsibility for the content of the statement or the decision to publish it”

With regard to the Particulars of Claim he found that the words published by the Defendant on their Solicitors from Hell website bore the following meanings:

“(a) 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.

(b) The Claimant unscrupulously inflates costs.

(c) The quality of the Claimant’s work is sub-standard and poor value for money.

(d) The Claimant’s staff and/or partners are guilty of committing the imprisonable offence of harassment contrary to section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

(e) The Claimant breaches its professional obligations and acts contrary to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Code of Conduct.

(f) The Claimant’s staff and/or partners are rude, threatening, intimidating and unprofessional.

(g) The Claimant ‘strong-armed’ payment from a former client that was not owed or warranted and thus committed an offence contrary to section 40 of the Administration of Justice of Act 1970.

(h) Prospective clients seeking to instruct the Claimant will receive sub-standard advice and lose out financially.”

Mr Justice Warby proceeded with the case on the basis that this was the natural and ordinary meaning of the words that the Claimant had complained of, which were clearly defamatory. For the purposes of s.1(2) he had to show that because the Claimant is a body that trades for profit, that it had been caused or likely “to cause the body serious financial loss.”

To show serious financial loss Mr Justice Warby looked at the features of the case and noted that the publication would most likely be read by people wanting to instruct the Claimant who upon reading the publication would not do so. He noted that the loss of one such instruction could lead to a loss to the Claimant of in some cases more than “tens of thousands of pounds”. Further, the Claimant noticed that there had been fewer enquiries leading to instructions and one such prospective Client did withdraw upon reading the publication. The Claimant had suffered financial loss but Mr Justice Warby did not give any figures. He look at the allegations overall and found that they were sufficient to demonstrate the Claimants had suffered serious financial loss.

Further, he found the allegations to be enough to grant injunctions, both prohibitory and mandatory, against the Defendants with the mandatory order for the removal from the internet of specified pages and links from the website making reference to the Claimants and halt any more publication. None of the Claimants allegations had been challenged by the Defendant and, their failure to reply to the Letter of Claim and the proceedings was shown in the Particulars of Claim.

The Claimants application notice also sought summary disposal under ss 8 and 9 of the Defamation Act 1996. Mr Justice Warby observed that if the Court cannot see a defence with a realistic prospect of success to the claim, then the Court can give judgment to the Claimant and grant summary relief. He explained that the procedure was not used very often because summary judgment is available in defamation cases under CPR24 with damages remaining capped at £10,000. He therefore made the application for damages of £10,000 and injunction.

Mr Justice Warby concluded that the allegations were serious and meant to stop people having any dealings with the Claimant. In particular, evidence of one person not engaging the Claimant’s services resulting in financial loss and 276 searches identifying people making enquiries who may have given instructions. Further, “the continued publication during August and September and the “grapevine” effect of publication”, the numbers may be much more.

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