On 16 September 2015, Mr Justice Warby granted mandatory and prohibitory final injunctions and made an award of damages against the unknown operators of the “Solicitors from Hell UK” website (“SFHUK.com”). This case is believed to be the first time that an English court has made an award of damages against “persons unknown”. It is also of significant interest to media lawyers as it is the first judgment which addresses the “serious financial loss” test under section 1(2) of the Defamation Act 2013 for bodies which trade for profit (albeit, with uncontested evidence).
The claimant, Brett Wilson LLP, brought a libel claim against the operator(s) of Solicitors from Hell UK, a website devoted to complaints about “Solicitor fraud, misconduct, incompetence, negligence, dishonesty, overcharging, corruption, embezzlement, lying/perjury and racism”, in respect of:
- the listing of the firm as one of the “solicitors from hell”; and
- the words which referred specifically to alleged conduct of the firm (which accused the firm of seeking to charge three times the quoted fee for a simple letter and then, when the client refused to pay, unjustifiably threatening legal action and engaging in a campaign of harassment).
The offending words had first appeared on the SFHUK.com at some point between 2 October 2014 and 15 January 2015 and remained on the site at the date of the hearing (7 September 2015).
The claimant served a claim form and particulars of claim to two email addresses associated with the operators of SFHUK.com pursuant to an order of Master McCloud. As the defendants did not subsequently file an acknowledgment of service (or contact the claimant at all), the claimant made an application in August 2015 seeking default judgment pursuant to CPR 12.3(1) and 12.4(2) and summary disposal of the case pursuant to section 8 of the Defamation Act 1996 with the following relief: (a) damages; (b) an injunction; and (c) costs.
Claims against “against persons unknown”
The legitimacy of bringing an claim and seeking an injunction against “persons unknown” has been recognised since Bloomsbury Publishing Group plc v News Group Newspapers Ltd  1 WLR 1633. It is necessary for the unknown person(s) to be identified by description, in such a way as to identify with certainty those who are included within it and those who are not (which in this case was met by the description “Persons Unknown responsible for the operation and publication of a website [SFHUK.com]”). Furthermore, the court can grant final injunctive relief against persons unknown, as established in Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd v Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and others  EWHC 3429 (QB).
Mr Justice Warby considered that it was right to hear and dispose of the claimant’s application in the absence of the defendants, following the approach he had identified in Sloutsker v Romanova  EWHC 545 (QB) -. Mr Justice Warby was satisfied that the claimant had taken all reasonable steps to notify the defendants – they had emailed the documents to two addresses associated with the defendants – and that the defendants had been given notice, and an adequate time to respond. Mr Justice Warby drew the inference that the reason why the defendants were not present or represented at the hearing was that they wished to remain anonymous (they were “hiding”) and that they had decided to avoid engaging with the court process.
The claimant was entitled to seek default judgment on the basis of his unchallenged particulars of claim (Sloutsker applied). There were no features in this case which required Mr Justice Warby to depart from this general rule, or consider evidence rather than the claimant’s pleaded case, verified by a statement of truth and uncontradicted by the defendants.
Mr Justice Warby was satisfied that there was enough in the pleaded allegations to justify judgment for damages to be assessed. He was also satisfied that the pleaded allegations made out a case for the grant of injunctions against the defendants. The defendants had published false allegations of a highly defamatory nature, which had caused serious financial loss (and were continuing to do so). Mr Justice Warby considered that the interference any injunctive relief would have on the defendants’ right to freedom of expression under Article 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 was necessary for the protection of the claimant’s reputation against false and damaging allegations and granted the injunctions sought: a prohibitory injunction to restrain further publication and mandatory injunctions to remove certain webpages from the web and to remove from the SFHUK.com website any metadata or search engine links which referred to the claimant as “solicitors from hell” or “lawyers from hell”.