Can the law help victims of anonymous abuse? The answer is found in the case of LJY v Persons Unknown  EWHC 3230 (QB).
On December 5th, 2017, LJY, a well-known figure in the entertainment industry received a letter purporting to be from a “highly discreet organisation”. The organisation claimed to be representing a nameless female client and alleged that LJY committed a “very serious offence” against her. The letter stated the alleged offence caused the female client to lose out on financial opportunities and consequently sought “financial recompense” of £50,000. If LJY failed to make the payment, the organisation threatened to release the details of the case to news agencies.
The letter referred to the “current political and social environment” in highlighting the potential damage to LJY’s reputation, alluding to the ongoing #MeToo campaign and the wave of public allegations as women are coming forward to share their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment.
LJY was given four days to comply with the demands, however he was offered a discount if he were to reply within 48 hours. To make contact, an unregistered and untraceable phone number had been established, to which LJY was to text a specific word and be informed of the next steps.
Finally, the organisation warned LJY that bringing the letter to the attention of police or lawyers would lead to the files being released. Despite the threat, LJY contacted the police and his solicitors immediately. When interviewing him the police described the letter as “a clear blackmail attempt”. Given the generic content of the wording, the officers believed the letter to be a scam. The letter was not unique to LJY; at the time of the hearing, the police were aware of 5 identically worded letters being sent to victims largely based in London.
LJY claimed an interim non-disclosure order (INDO) against the anonymous organisation – persons unknown. The order was to prevent the persons unknown from publishing the allegations of serious criminality or any information identifying LJY in relation to the proceedings. To grant the order, Justice Warby needed to be
satisfied that the claimant was likely to establish that the publication should not be allowed, pursuant to s12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (as the injunction would affect the right to
freedom of speech). Justice Warby agreed to grant the INDO, having considered the various elements of the claim as listed below:
Misuse of Private Information
The information referred to in the Letter undoubtedly fell within the scope of LJY’s private life. Therefore, LJY was entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy – the first thing required for a misuse of private information claim. Once this had been established, the court must consider how the balance between privacy and freedom of expression can be balanced in the context of the circumstances of the case. The court generally takes the view that blackmail represents a misuse of free speech rights. Consequently, Justice Warby stated in his judgement that mass publication of a false allegation that a person has committed a serious offence is a misuse of private information.
Prohibition of Harassment
The tort of harassment was next discussed by the Judge, as provided by s1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Justice Warby concluded that if the threat in the letter were to be carried out, it would amount to the tort of harassment. Additionally, he argued that it would be “more likely that not” that at trial the court would reach the same conclusion.
Furthermore, Justice Warby noted the threshold test of likely success in relation to granting an injunction is not always the correct one to apply. The rule in defamation, as originated in Bonnard v Perryman QBD ( 2 Ch 269), states that the Court will not grant an injunction where there is a real prospect the claim may fail. As LJY was concerned about his reputation, his counsel suggested the stricter defamation rule may apply. Justice Warby agreed that if the letter were to be carried out it would be libellous, and the allegation clearly likely to cause serious harm to LJY’s reputation. Moreover, damages would not be an adequate remedy. Furthermore, Justice Warby saw no evidence indicating a sufficient basis for truth or public interest.
Impact on future cases
Both this case and the case of GYH v Persons Unknown  EWHC 3360 (QB) confirm the legal protection available against anonymous sources. In GYH, Justice Warby provided an INDO for a sex-worker who was harassed online by an anonymous person. This is particularly relevant in respect of online bullying or harassment from internet trolls and other anonymous abusers. Given that it is increasingly easy for perpetrators of abuse to hide their identity online, these cases confirm that legal remedies are still available against them and that victims can do so whilst keeping their own identities hidden.
If you feel that you may have been defamed or your private information is being exploited and/or misused, contact Taylor Hampton. Based in London, the firm specializes in defamation law and privacy law – protecting privacy and reputation.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is for information purposes only. The article is not advice and should not be treated as such. The legal points made in this article are for general application only and should not be taken as specific advice for individual use.