Psychotherapist awarded £75,000 in libel and harassment damages after former colleague found to have pursued a targeted public vendetta and false passing off claim
On 1 November 2023, the High Court handed down judgment in Crosbie v Ley  EWHC 2626 (KB). The Defendant, Siobhain Crosbie, sued the Claimant, Caroline Ley, for passing off. She sought damages of £1.4 million, plus interest. Ms Ley counterclaimed for libel, harassment, and breach of data protection rights. Mr Justice Julian Knowles dismissed Ms Crosbie’s passing off claim as being totally without merit, and found in Ms Ley’s favour on the counterclaim, awarding her damages of £75,000.
The Claimant, Ms Crosbie, and the Defendant, Ms Ley, are both therapists. Ms Ley undertook some of her training with Ms Crosbie’s practice, and subsequently rented a room at Ms Crosbie’s premises between 2010 and early 2012.
In 2016, Ms Crosbie began alleging that Ms Ley had passed off her therapy business, Buckhurst Hill Counselling and Psychotherapy, as Ms Crosbie’s business, APS Psychotherapy Counselling (‘APS’), by creating a listing on what was then known as ‘Google Places’ (now Google Business Profiles) under the name of APS, but with Ms Ley’s telephone number. Ms Crosbie also alleged that Ms Ley had created an entry in an online directory website using Ms Crosbie’s trading style, but with Ms Ley’s telephone number. It was suggested that these two alleged acts by Ms Ley had diverted potential business away from APS, and to Ms Ley’s practice.
Ms Ley’s counterclaim related to posts published by Ms Crosbie online, and in particular, on Facebook, and Twitter (as it was then known) between 2016 and 2020. In the posts, many of which Ms Crosbie published in Facebook groups dedicated to counselling professionals, Ms Crosbie repeatedly accused Ms Ley of fraud and unethical conduct, and stated that she was a danger to her clients. Some of the posts also included threats of violence aimed at Ms Ley.
Ms Crosbie’s passing off claim
A claimant must establish three elements to prove a defendant is liable for passing off:
- a misrepresentation for which the Defendant is responsible; and
Mr Crosbie was unable to show that there had been any misrepresentation by the Defendant. To the contrary, the Court was satisfied that the merged Google listing had occurred because of what appeared to be a well-documented issue with Google’s technology at the time. Julian Knowles J noted that Ms Ley had had no incentive to have dishonestly created such a merged listing; to have done so would have run the risk that someone searching for her business might have engaged Ms Crosbie's services instead, as the listing contained Ms Crosbie's web address. As Ms Ley was blameless, the question of damage did not arise, but the Judge nevertheless went on to find that there was no evidence that the merged listing had caused Ms Crosbie any damage at all, much less damage running into the millions of pounds. The Particulars of Claim should not have been verified by a Statement of Truth: Ms Crosbie had advanced a false damages claim. The claim was dismissed as totally without merit.
Ms Ley’s defamation and harassment counterclaims
Ms Crosbie’s Amended Defence to Ms Ley’s defamation claim did not advance any positive defence, instead simply putting Ms Ley to proof that the statements had caused serious harm to her reputation.
Julian Knowles J had no hesitation in finding that each of the publications were defamatory of Ms Ley, and had caused serious harm to her reputation because, amongst other things, the publications made allegations of criminality against her; they were seen by a considerable number of people; the reception of the posts on social media indicated that many people had taken them at face value; and many of the publishees were Ms Ley’s peers. Despite the lack of a pleaded truth defence, it was held that Ms Ley had not committed fraud, or any other criminal offence, she had not behaved unethically, and she is not a danger to clients. Similarly, whilst Ms Crosbie had withdrawn her public interest defence by amendment, the judge found that it would have failed in any event. None of the statements complained of were on a matter of public interest. They were part of an ongoing, public and targeted vendetta by Ms Crosbie against Ms Ley.
Ms Ley’s counterclaim in harassment also succeeded. The judge found that, even with the high bar for claims in harassment by publication (given the need to take account of Ms Crosbie’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights), Ms Ley had made out her case with reference to clear evidence. Ms Crosbie had engaged in a lengthy course of conduct. Whilst initially Ms Crosbie had not directly identified Ms Ley in her social media posts, they had allowed for jigsaw identification (by way of example, a friend of Ms Ley had identified her in that way and contacted her about the posts). The fact that Ms Crosbie had focussed on forums within the therapy industry caused Ms Ley understandable distress. In the later phase of Ms Crosbie’s campaign, she had identified Ms Ley and her business by name, even including her phone number on a GoFundMe page designed to raise support and funds for her meritless claim. Ms Crosbie’s actions risked subjecting Ms Ley to further harassment from readers, who believed Ms Crosbie’s accusations. Her posts contained threats of violence, and much of what she had published was demonstrably false.
The judge awarded Ms Ley £75,000 in damages, and indicated that he would grant an injunction against Ms Crosbie and order her to publish a summary of the judgment pursuant to section 12 of the Defamation Act 2013.
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