Woodward v Grice, Court of Appeal - Queen's Bench Division, June 07, 2017, [2017] EWHC 1292 (QB)

Issuing Organization:Queen's Bench Division
Actores:Woodward v Grice
Resolution Date:June 07, 2017
 
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Case No: B90MA311

Neutral Citation Number: [2017] EWHC 1292 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

Manchester Civil Justice Centre

1 Bridge Street West

Manchester

M60 9DJ

Date: 07/06/2017

Before:

MR JUSTICE KING

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Between:

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Mr Eric Shannon (instructed by Denwis Limited) for the Claimant

The Defendant in person

Hearing dates: Friday 15th July 2016

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JudgmentMr Justice King:

  1. This matter came before me on the 15th of July 2016 for a hearing on the assessment of damages and the claim for injunctive relief in libel proceedings following entry of summary judgment on the 31st of December 2015. This is my reserved judgement following that hearing.

  2. The Claimant Graham Woodward is an in house solicitor employed by the Blackpool Football Club. To quote paragraph 1 of the Particulars of Claim he:

    `...is a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales and is employed by the Oysten Group of companies and works as an in-house solicitor for that group of companies which includes Blackpool Football Limited'

  3. The Claimant was represented before me by Mr Shannon of counsel. The Defendant appeared in person and has acted throughout in person. I received live evidence on oath from the Claimant, from the Defendant and from the operator of the Backhenrystreet website, Mr Paul Crashley. The evidence of the operator of the Fansonline website, Mr Jeremy Lacey, was accepted as read from his witness statement, Mr Lacey being unavailable to attend the hearing.

    The fansonline posting

  4. The Claimant claims damages for libel, including aggravated damages, and injunctive relief arising out of a posting made by the Defendant upon a website entitled `Fansonline.co.uk' in which the Defendant alleged the Claimant was a struck off solicitor.

  5. Summary judgment has been entered only in respect the Fansonline publication.

  6. The publication complained of is pleaded in the Particulars of Claim as follows:

    `2. On or about the 8th of July the Defendant published on an internet website known as Fansonline at URL http://www.fansonline.net in the thread entitled `Phase Two...who's involved' under the username `the Stockport one' at 07.59 a posting at http://www.fansonline.net/blackpool/mb/virw.php?id+22036796, a copy of which appears at Annex A attached hereto.

  7. The said posting included the words:

    ``The well known struck off solicitor Graham Woodward''

  8. At paragraph 6 it is pleaded that the posting referred to and was understood to refer to the Claimant in that it referred to him by name.

  9. The meaning complained of is pleaded as follows:

    `7. The words complained of in each posting in their natural and ordinary meaning and inferential meaning meant and were understood to mean that Mr Graham Woodward is a struck off solicitor that is to say that the Solicitors Regulation Authority the independent regulatory body of the Law Society of England and Wales has struck Mr Woodward off the roll of practising solicitors and has done so for some misconduct on his part and further meant and were understood to mean that Mr Woodward practises as a solicitor when he is not entitled to because of his being struck off'

  10. The Defendant has never served a formal defence of justification. It is not now disputed by the Defendant that the words complained were untrue. No denial has ever been served of paragraph 9 of the particulars of claim which pleads:

    `The said statement is false in that Mr Graham Woodward has never been struck off and remains a practising solicitor in good standing'

    The `backhenrystreet' posting

  11. The Claimant's pleadings complained also of a further posting which was in form word for word the same as that published on the Fansonline website. This is alleged to have posted on or about the same day, the 8th of July 2015, on another website, namely `www.backhenrystreet.co.uk'. Paragraph 4 of the Particulars of Claim averred that this also had been published by the Defendant `in the thread entitled `Phase II The Stockport One' under the user name FP Charade at 07.49'.

  12. The Defendant has always denied that he made this particular posting. Mr Shannon conceded that the pleaded timing (a time before the Fansonline posting) was pleaded in error. He did not seek to dispute that which the Defendant, said both in his defence at paragraph 19 (`I do not deny making the post under' The Stockport One' but I have no idea regarding the posting timed at 07.49 by `FP Charade' 10 minutes before my post that has caused offence. I have never posted under FP Charade and do not know who posts under this username'), and in his witness statement of the 30th of March 2016 at paragraph 8 (`...the latter post not having been made by me but rather by another who copied my post across from Fansonline').

  13. In the circumstances the Claimant did not before me seek to litigate the Defendant's liability for this second posting. Mr Shannon chose rather to seek to recover as part of the damages flowing from the original Fansonline publication, the further injury alleged to have been suffered by the Claimant by reason of its repetition. It is accepted that for such a recovery to be allowed, the damage suffered by the repetition must not be too remote, meaning that such repetition must be a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the original publication.

  14. The Defendant has admitted he composed and posted the words appearing on the fansonline posting. In these circumstances the likelihood must be, and I so find, that since the publication on the backhenrystreet website is word for word the same (save for its heading and username), this was a posting made subsequently on or about the 8th of July 2015. I am satisfied that in the circumstances the backhenrystreet publication was a reasonably foreseeable repetition of the Defendant's original publication. I agree with Mr Shannon that it is in the nature of defamatory statements that they are often repeated and passed on when they first appear on an internet website.

  15. Accordingly my assessment of damages for the fansonline publication will reflect my assessment of the totality of the injury suffered by the Claimant to his reputation and his feelings, as a result not only of the original publication but also of its repetition on the backhenrystreet site.

    Context

  16. The context in which the words complained of were published as follows. The words appeared in the course of a posting which was in these terms. The highlighting of the reference to the Claimant is the highlighting of this Court:

    `After legal advice last night as to the seriousness of the evidence we have gathered, I will give you all the small bit of information I can. Phase two will involve three people within the club and surrounding companies.

    Our esteemed currently banned chairman Karl Oyston.

    The well known struck off solicitor Graham Woodward.

    All three of these in my opinion will have serious allegations to answer for. They do have accomplices we now think and these are also being checked out and maybe they will also come into the picture.

    In my view and those looking at the new evidence we have acquired, leave our chairman with no option but to resign if found guilty.

    As the head of a company you have certain responsibilities and I am sure that no one can look at him in a great light when all this breaks. Onwards with the case and further evidence gathering. Hopefully know more in a couple of weeks.

    Cheers

    SUPPORT THE STOCKPORT ONE'

    The pleaded claim: extent of publication

  17. As to the extent of publication, paragraph 10 of the Particulars of Claim pleads that both websites could be accessed by any user of the World Wide Web and it was to be inferred that a substantial number of users had in fact accessed them and read the words complained of, given the widespread interest in Blackpool Football Club. The Claimant further relied upon the fact that many other people had made postings within the same threads or elsewhere upon the two websites. Reliance was placed upon the number of `hits' upon the websites as demonstrating that they and their various contents were `widely read'.

  18. The Defendant in his Defence, and then in his witness statement, averred that any publication was very limited both in reach and in the time it remained accessible on the internet. Paragraph 4 of the Defence pleads:

    `The message board is extremely quiet close season and based upon the relatively short period the posting was live, I estimate no more than 50 people will have read the post'.

  19. Paragraph 8 of his witness statement states that which is he described as `the erroneous posting' was removed `very quickly' by both forums and was unlikely to have been seen by `anyone other than a few Blackpool fans'

    The pleaded damage

  20. Paragraph 11 of the Particulars of Claim, pleads that the words complained of, have caused or were likely to cause the Claimant serious harm to his personal and professional reputation and that he has suffered considerable hurt, distress and embarrassment.

  21. In contrast at paragraph 7 of the Defendant's witness statement this appears:

    `What I don't accept is that Mr Woodward has suffered any reputational loss or loss of earnings, nor that my erroneous references has had any impact on his professional standing. Mr Woodward isn't in private practice and therefore doesn't have any client base of his own. His employment could never have been under threat as he was then and continues to be employed by the Oyston Group of companies and I believe I am one of the last people they would ever take any notice of.'

  22. In final submissions, Mr Grice submitted that there was no evidence of any reputational harm to the Claimant or financial harm suffered by him.

  23. There is in fact no pleaded claim to any loss of earnings or other financial loss. Mr Shannon moreover conceded in his final submissions that there was no established damage of any significance to the Claimant's professional reputation within his...

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