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Council obtain harassment injunction against ‘irrational’ and ‘obsessive’ resident

In Cheshire West and Chester Council and others -v- Pickthall [2015] EWHC 2141 (QB), a local authority (joined by two of its officers/employees and two of its members, all of whom acted in a representative capacity) sought interim injunctive relief to protect its officers, employees and members from harassment, contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, by one of its residents.

The Defendant is alleged to have engaged in a consistent campaign against the Claimants since 2010.  This centred around two disputes: the first as to the state of the electricity supply to the Defendant’s former home, and the second concerning the existence/use of a road adjacent to his current address.  The campaign is said to have involved the sending by the Defendant of thousands of emails, the threat of leafleting throughout the local area, the making of numerous requests pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, and the creation of a website.  Throughout these differing publications, the Defendant made numerous allegations of dishonesty, corruption and criminality against the Claimants and those they represent.  The Defendant broadly accepts the conduct alleged but denies that his actions were vexatious, but rather were carried out for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, and otherwise were reasonable (statutory defences under sections 1(3)(a) and 1(3)(c) of the Act respectively).  The proceedings are brought under CPR Part 8 and the application for interim relief was made on notice and following service of the Claim/claimant’s evidence, the Defence (albeit, this took the form of a letter to the Court) and a Reply.  Thus, Mr Justice Edis considered that he had a ‘sound basis’ on which to consider the application.

Where a court is asked to grant relief which may affect the exercise of a party’s right to freedom of expression enshrined by Article 10 ECHR, it must consider section 12(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998 which stipulates that no such relief should be granted unless the court is satisfied that the applicant is likely to ultimately establish that the publication should not be allowed (although it was held in Cream Holdings Ltd v Banerjee [2005] 1 AC 253 that this is not to be regarded as a rigid test).  In this case, this meant that the Judge had to be satisfied that the Claimants were likely to establish that the Defendant should not be allowed to publish further acts of harassment, because he would ultimately be unable to establish any of the statutory defences.

In Hayes -v- Willoughby [2013] UKSC 17, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether it was sufficient that the harasser believed his behaviour to be necessary for the prevention or detection of crime. In considering that question, Lord Sumption observed that ‘a large proportion of those engaging in the kind of persistent and deliberate course of targeted oppression with which the Act is concerned will in the nature of things be obsessives and cranks who will commonly believe themselves to be entitled to act as they do’.  Lord Sumption went on to find that there must be ‘rationality’ i.e. a logical thought process behind the Defendant’s belief.  This test is lower than the more general one of ‘reasonableness’, which is an external, objective standard.  This, Mr Justice Edis used as a starting point in the instant case, reasoning that if the Defendant could not meet the test of rationality, he would not be able to establish the more stringent test of reasonableness.

On the facts, the Judge found that there was no rational causal link between the Defendant’s campaign of harassment and his stated desire to prevent or detect crime.  It appeared to the Judge that the Defendant had ‘become obsessed and perhaps even exhilarated by his ability to cause distress by repeating long dead allegations over and over again’.  Notably, the Judge found that the interference with the Defendant’s Article 10 rights was proportionate because nothing would be supressed by the Order: ‘the Defendant has already published his allegations as widely and as often as he can’.


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