Harassment

September 29th, 2021

In Ashford Borough Council v Wilson (2021) EWHC 2542 (QB) the Borough Council and its Chief Executive sought on their own behalf and on behalf of the current and former officers, employees, councillors and agents of the Council, a final anti-harassment injunction against the Defendant, a large-scale landlord in Kent, pursuant to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 [“the 1997 Act”]. The Claimants’ complaints related, principally, to letters and emails sent by the Defendant.

Section 1 of the 1997 Act prohibits harassment.  Sections 2 and 3 create a criminal offence and provide for civil remedy.  Section 7 relates to interpretation, but there is no statutory definition of harassment.  The concept is wide and open-ended.  The Judge said:-

“120. For conduct to amount to harassment it must attain a certain level of severity.  Mere annoyance or irritation is insufficient to amount to harassment; what must be shown is conduct which crosses “the boundary from the regrettable to the unacceptable” … One has to put up with a certain amount of annoyance in everyday life.  However, where conduct goes beyond annoyance and irritation and is oppressive or genuinely offensive then that may amount to harassment such that the provisions of the 1997 Act apply.

122. A course of conduct may amount to harassment even where the defendant’s initial conduct was legitimate and lawful …”

“125. The authorities recognise the importance of freedom of speech and the right to freedom of speech conferred by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. …”

“144. I find as a fact that the Defendant sent all of the correspondence attributed to him and produced before me.

145. On the totality of the evidence I also make the following findings of fact:

i) The Defendant engaged in a campaign of repetitive, frequent, oppressive and offensive correspondence with the Claimants. On occasion he has sent multiple letters in a day or over a short period of days. He has continued with correspondence seeking to resurrect complaints and events from many years earlier. The contents of his letter are repetitive and ignore reasoned responses provided by the Claimants.

ii) The Defendant’s correspondence has included frequent personal insults directed at ABC Councillors and employees. Ms Clarke and W have been the most obvious targets.

v) The Defendant elected to ignore the Claimants’ reasonable, proportionate and clearly explained proposals/requests to adopt a single point of contact system.

vi) The Defendant elected to ignore the Claimants reasonable, proportionate and clearly explained proposals/requests to adopt an email divert system.

vii) The Defendant sent multiple emails to many Councillors in the full knowledge that those Councillors had no responsibility for/ involvement in the issue he was seeking to raise. There was no legitimate or reasonable justification for sending those emails to those Councillors.

xiv) If and insofar as the Defendant had a legitimate concern or complaint which he wished to raise, that concern or complaint was properly addressed by the Claimants.  Any such concern or complaint did not justify the volume, frequency, tone or content of the Defendant’s correspondence.

xv) Whilst the Defendant’s correspondence may have commenced with legitimate queries as to steps taken by ABC, its Officers or staff, those queries were superseded by the repetitive, offensive and unacceptable correspondence described.

xvi) On a number of occasions, the Claimants clearly and expressly informed the Defendant that they considered that his correspondence and conduct (i) was causing alarm and distress to ABC employees, and (ii) amounted to harassment. Notwithstanding those warnings and warnings that the First Claimant would be forced to take legal action, the Defendant deliberately persisted with, and on occasions, escalated, his correspondence and conduct.

146. In the light of my findings I have no hesitation in finding that the Defendant’s conduct was harassment in breach of section 1 of the 1997 Act.

147. The Defendant’s conduct repeatedly went far beyond merely irritating and annoying. It was deliberately offensive. It included numerous unfounded allegations of professional misconduct and criminal conduct. It included multiple threats of criminal or other legal proceedings which were never pursued. The Defendant’s conduct amount to harassment within the terms of s.1(1)(a).

148. The Defendant knew or ought to have known that his conduct amounted to harassment [see 1(1)(b)]. He had been informed on numerous occasions by the Claimants that it amounted to harassment. Any reasonable person in possession of the same information would recognise that the Defendant’s conduct amounted to harassment [see s.1(2)].

149. The Claimant’s conduct was intended to cause alarm, upset and distress. It did cause alarm, upset and distress.

150. A significant proportion of the Defendant’s correspondence was intended to persuade the Claimants [and the officers/employees they represent in these proceedings] not to do something they were entitled to do or to do something they were not under an obligation to do [s.1(1A)(c)]. …”

“156. In my judgment, the Defendant’s intention was to cause alarm or distress to those individuals he complained about and against whom he made serious but unfounded allegations. Those individuals were the actual target of his conduct.  In any event, it was foreseeable, and the Defendant foresaw, that they would probably be caused alarm and distress as a result of his conduct. In my judgment it makes no difference that the manner in which he sought to cause that alarm and distress was by making unfounded complaints and allegations to third parties.”

“159. I am satisfied that the interim injunction should be continued and converted to a permanent injunction.”

“161. … I refuse the Claimants’ application to extend the terms of the injunction to prevent the Defendant from laying an information or otherwise seeking to commence proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court without permission of a High Court Judge.”

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