By Jonathan Peters, Trainee Solicitor
A transgender woman working as an escort has been granted an injunction against an unknown defendant who conducted an online campaign of harassment against her. She has also won her right to a damages from the defendant, but only if she can identify her abuser.
The Claimant, working under a pseudonym, provided escort services to clients and had an active social media presence across Facebook, YouTube and a blog. In December 2015 an unknown person texted the Claimant, claiming to be a student who wished to meet her socially, but not pay for her services. After the Claimant declined to meet the person, the text messages deteriorated into abuse, and shortly afterwards she received anonymous phone calls which directed similar abuse towards her. Following this, the Claimant was targeted by a wide campaign of online harassment. Information was posted on websites that included allegations that she spread sexually transmitted diseases, along with supposed images of the Claimant altered in an offensive manner.
On 1 February 2018, Mr Justice Knowles heard the Claimant's application for the final determination of her claim for an injunction to restrain the campaign of harassment, and for damages under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 ("PHA"). This followed hearing before Mr Justice Warby on 14 December 2017, where the Claimant was granted an interim injunction to the same effect.
In order to succeed in a claim for harassment, the Claimant must demonstrate that a person pursued a course of conduct which amounted to harassment of them, and which the defendant knew or ought to have known amounted to harassment. The relevant test for determining what constitutes 'harassment' is that it must cause the claimant alarm or distress, and a 'course of conduct' must entail such behaviour on at least two occasions.
The Claimant's case was that the publications caused her considerable distress, and amounted to harassment by the misuse of private information. She also maintained that some of them were both defamatory and untrue.
The judge determined that the fact that no defendant had been identified was not a bar to the grant of final injunctive relief, citing precedent including Brett Wilson LLP v Person(s) Unknown, and Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd v Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.
The judge agreed with Warby J's conclusion at the interim hearing that the Claimant had suffered "a sweeping attack on values of autonomy and dignity which are at the heart of the right to privacy". He concluded that there was no real prospect of any defendant successfully defending the claim, with the Claimant surmounting the threshold for summary judgment. It would be difficult to make out even a fanciful potential justification for the defendant's conduct under the PHA or otherwise; and there was no other compelling reason for the claim to be disposed of at a further hearing.
The judge granted final injunctive relief, but left open the prospect of the defendant contesting the injunction if they were eventually identified. Assessment of damages was stayed pending the resolution of any efforts by the Claimant to track down the defendant.
The Novartis case referred to above was the first time such an injunction was granted in the context of harassment against an unknown category of persons and the practicality of the action has since been demonstrated in both Kerner v WX and LYJ v Persons Unknown. These unusual circumstances in which the injunction was granted demonstrate the versatility of harassment actions as tools for victims of anonymous online abuse. It can be an effective alternative to a claim in defamation or misuse of private information as the threshold test in harassment is typically more straightforward to meet. As observed by Tugendhat J in ZAM v CFW, campaigns of vilification involving the publication of defamatory allegations, indecent images, or private or personal information are increasingly the subject of interim injunctions for harassment. Damages awarded in harassment claims are typically lower than in defamation or privacy claims, but that may not necessarily be an important consideration for a claimant when, realistically, the wrongdoer may never be traced. If the objective is simply to stop the abuse, a harassment injunction can be fast and effective.
Although relief has been granted by the court, the matter is not over for the Claimant. Prior to the final hearing, the Claimant received no response from two websites which published the offending material, following service of the interim injunction she had obtained. As of 1 February, efforts to persuade Google to remove offending search results were said to have been fruitless. Moreover, to receive any damages award, the onus remains on her to trace and uncover the identity of her original abuser.