Sloutsker v Romanova (Rev 1) [2015]

In Sloutsker v Romanova (Rev 1) [2015] EWHC 2053 (QB) (16 July 2015) the Claimant was a Russian citizen who emigrated to Israel in 2011 and is a businessman who served as a Senator from 2002 to 2010 in the Russian federation. The Defendant is a journalist in Russia writing for a newspaper and other publications. Her husband had been employed by the Claimant and was convicted in Russia and sent to prison for stealing assets from one of the Claimant’s companies.

In 2012 the Claimant instructed Solicitors following publications by the Defendant, which his Solicitors referred to as a “campaign” of “false and highly defamatory allegations”, which had been published in Russia and within this jurisdiction. Proceedings were commenced on the 4th January 2013.

The Particulars of Claim concerned four of the publications:

  • “(1) A blog post written by the defendant on the website of the Moscow-based radio station Echo Moscow (“the Blogpost”); (2) & (3) two articles quoting the defendant published on the Russian website (“the Second and Third Articles”); and (4) a programme broadcast on Radio Liberty (“the Programme”)”.

The defamatory meanings given were:

  1. “that the Claimant had put a contract out for the murder of Alexei Kozlov, which was to be carried out whilst Mr Kozlov was being transferred to prison” (the Blogpost).
  2. “that the Claimant had ordered the fabrication of evidence in the criminal prosecution of Alexei Kozlov and had put a contract out for the murder of Mr Kozlov, which was to be carried out whilst Mr Kozlov was being transferred to prison” (the Second Article);
  3. “that the Claimant had threatened to kill Alexei Kozlov and had put a contract out for his murder, which was to be carried out whilst Mr Kozlov was being transferred to prison” (the Third Article); and
  4. “that the Claimant had by means of bribes corrupted the head of the Presnensky Court, Evgeny Mikhailovich Naidenov, the public prosecutor and Judge hearing the appeal in Alexei Kozlov’s case, Judge Vasyuchenko, and had issued instructions to them that Mr Kozlov’s sentence of imprisonment was to be increased at his appeal hearing (whereas otherwise he would have been released) and was thereby guilty of an horrific perversion of the course of justice.” (The Programme).

The Defendant only became aware of the proceedings in October 2013 due to the slow Court procedure within Russia and she or her husband eventually received the documentation in July 2014. Through her UK Solicitors, in September 2014, she made an application for service to be set aside on grounds that the court should not accept jurisdiction.Further, she contended that she had not been served correctly with the documentation and supported this with a witness statement dated 5th September 2014.

Although the UK Solicitors ceased acting for the Defendant on the 12th January 2015, her address for service had not been altered and remained their offices. From that date to the 19th June 2015, the Claimant’s Solicitors had confirmed to the Defendant service of their Clients applications, submissions and evidence but they had not received any communication from her.

On the 29th May 2015 Mr Justice Warby entered judgment in default of Defence, in response to the Claimant’s application, which was over eight weeks after his order for directions and four weeks following the time limit he set for service of a Defence. He had at that time also ordered a hearing in order to make an assessment as to damages and decide the claim for an injunction and costs, “the remedies hearing” which date was to be fixed between the 10th and 31st July 2015 and set a deadline for the Defendant to produce evidence with regard to those issues.

The Defendant on the 19th June 2015 wrote a letter to the Court, breaking her silence, addressed for the attention of Mr Justice Warby. She said she had the assistance of an organisation that assists journalists to defend court cases. In her three page letter she set out why she would not appear at the remedies hearing and, as there was no indication that a copy of the letter had been sent to the Claimant’s Solicitors, he made an order making sure it was seen by them prior to the remedies hearing then fixed for the 13th July 2015.

The Defendant’s letter referred to her language problems and financial situation:

  • “My native language is Russian, and I only have limited knowledge of English. I have found it very difficult to engage with the English courts in relation to my case because of my limited ability to speak, read and write in English. I have had to rely on my husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Koslov, to translate many of the email communications and documents I have received in relation to my case. My husband’s knowledge of English, although slightly better than my own, is far from fluent. Furthermore, due to my financial position, I have also been unable to afford translators to work on my case. This has meant that I have been unable to read Russian translations of the court’s documents. This includes the Honourable Justice Warby’s written decision of 5 March 2015.
    … I am unable to ascertain my legal position from these documents [provided to her by iLaw] due to language issues, my lack of legal representation and my lack of translation resources”

Mr Justice Warby examined the Defendant’s letter in great detail and “nonetheless considered carefully whether her letter should lead me to adjourn, so that she can apply to set aside the default judgment or make representations as to remedies”. He was not convinced by the difficulties she raised concerning language or the constraints on her finances which she said led her to dispense with paid legal representation. He considered it more likely she was unable to find a lawyer due to her own efforts or that she could not persuade a lawyer to represent her.

He looked at the legal principles in cases like this where he said “the purpose of a damages award is compensatory. The aim as in all tort cases is to restore the claimant so far as money can do so, to the position he would have been in had the libels not been published. That requires compensation for the injury done by the libels to the claimant’s reputation. Where the claimant is an individual it also requires compensation for the injury to his feelings”.

Mr Justice Warby observed that he had already examined in detail the Claimant’s reputation in his judgment in March and did not want to repeat everything he had said then. He recapped by saying that the Claimant was a well-known Russian Senator and that in 2001 there were 248,000 Russian speaking people resident in the UK. Further the Claimant was well-known in the Jewish community, especially within London where he had a house and his Divorce in 2012 had been the subject of a very well publicised ruling. He continued, “I was and remain satisfied that the claimant had “a real and substantial reputation in this jurisdiction at the time of first publication, which is likely to have grown since.” Since the May judgment the Claimant had produced another witness statement confirming his intention to live in London with his family during the next two years, his family being his son, daughter and elderly parents which Mr Justice Warby considered relevant.

Mr Justice Warby noted how the matter has affected the Claimant

  • “”The allegations are so serious and harmful that I continue to live in fear of the danger that at any time they will be brought up in the context of my business dealings or will surface so as to cast a shadow over me…” I note that these points are specifically tied by him, as is proper, to fear of the consequences for his reputation in this jurisdiction, including with the British Jewish Leadership Council and British politicians. The claimant expresses frustration at the defendant’s conduct in claiming her allegations are true, “without producing any evidence that would allow me to refute her claims in detail”.

Mr Justice Warby on assessment considered the libels against the Claimant to be serious, the allegation of conspiracy to murder particularly so. He believe the Claimant was “entitled to a sum that will vindicate him in the eyes of interested third parties who are unlikely to read this judgment” and he considered “the appropriate global award of damages to compensate for the injury to reputation, and to feelings, and to ensure adequate vindication in respect of these serious allegations is £110,000”.

With regard to the Claimant’s request for an injunction, he noted that publication had continued and there had been no attempt by the Defendant to cease publication and he believed that she would republish the allegations if he did not grant an injunction.

Mr Justice Warby concluded that the Defendant could have taken part in the court process but she has not done so, only writing a letter dated the 19th June 2015. He continued that she has the right under CPR 13 to make application to set aside the default judgment that Mr Justice Warby entered on the 29th May 2015 and could ask permission from the Court to appeal out of time against his judgment. She further had the right to make an application under CPR 39.3(3) to set aside his decision and make application to stay enforcement of his award, appeal against it and the injunction.

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