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Harassment of local authorities, their employees and officers – when is enough, enough?

A local authority has been successful in obtaining a permanent injunction against an individual who had targeted employees and councillors in a longstanding campaign.

Ashford Borough Council & Tracey Kerly -v- Mr Fergus Wilson [2021] EWHC 2542 (QB)

What happened?

Mr Wilson sent 454 of pieces of correspondence to Ashford Borough Council between February 2016 and July 2020.

The correspondence  made personal attacks on individuals within the council as well as accusations of incompetency and criminal offences. Mr Wilson also made various threats and on two occasions suggested that certain individuals should commit suicide.

The Council and its Chief Executive applied, on behalf of its employees and councillors, to the court for a permanent injunction against Mr Wilson. Mr Wilson said that even though some of his correspondence and communications might be characterised as offensive or even “abhorrent”, his behaviour had not crossed the threshold required for it to be characterised as harassment within the terms of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. He claimed that his conduct was appropriate and that he was entitled as a taxpayer to lobby elected officials at the Council.

The 1997 Act offers both criminal and civil remedies. In this case, the local authority pursued a civil claim to restrain Mr Wilson. One of the key benefits of obtaining injunctive relief is that if the terms of the injunction are breached, the individual is guilty of a criminal offence. In addition an injunction offered the Council’s staff and councillors the best protection from harassment on an ongoing basis.

What is harassment?

Unfortunately the Act does not define harassment and each claim will be dealt with on its own facts. The 1997 Act prohibits a person from pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another person and which he/she knows or ought to know amounts to harassment. A person is deemed to know that their conduct amounts to harassment if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment.

Case law shows that 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”. There is a balance to be struck with the right the freedom of speech.

For example, in Roberts v Bank of Scotland, 547 calls by the bank to a customer over a period of 14 months constituted harassment even though it was accepted that she had breached her contract with the bank. The court said that the bank did not have the right to “bombard the debtor with endless and repeated telephone calls”.  Meanwhile in Iqbal v Dean Manson Solicitors, three letters which made serious allegations about a former employee’s professional conduct, integrity and behaviour were held to constitute harassment. The court said that each letter was unreasonable or oppressive and unacceptable. In another case, the Nursing & Midwifery Council brought a successful claim following a campaign of emails and negative posts about the organisation.

What was decided?

The High Court ruled that the Council was entitled to a permanent  injunction against Mr Wilson. The injunction effectively bans Mr Wilson from communicating with the council, with the exception of one designated individual through whom he can communicate any legitimate queries.

The Judge rejected Mr Wilson’s arguments and had no hesitation in finding that his conduct constituted harassment under the legislation. The Judge stated that his intention was to cause distress and upset and in some circumstances influence the local authority to take action (or not take action) to his advantage.

The Judge noted that the 1997 Act does not limit or specify the type of conduct which can amount to harassment. Therefore, the fact that the correspondence was not always sent directly to the person named and targeted, but was in some cases communicated via their colleague, was irrelevant. The Judge stated that, “… it makes no difference that the manner in which he [Mr Wilson] sought to cause that alarm and distress was by making unfounded complaints and allegations to third parties.”

Furthermore, the fact that Mr Wilson’s correspondence began as a legitimate query was irrelevant to the question of whether he had harassed individuals in subsequent communications.

What does this case show?

The judgment acts as a reminder of the broad protection afforded to individuals, companies, public bodies and groups under the 1997 Act, and that its provisions can be utilised to protect public sector employees and officers when they are targeted.

If you find yourself in a situation where you or your employees are being harassed, our team of commercial litigators may be able to help. Contact one of our specialists to find out more.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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Robert Eldon

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