Law firm sues ‘Solicitors from Hell’ website for damages over defamatory statements
A law firm which was described as “shameless, corrupt, fraudulent, dishonest, unethical, incompetent and oppressive” has been awarded damages from the operators of a spin-off of the “Solicitors from Hell” website after a judge ruled that the comments were defamatory.
London legal firm Brett Wilson LLP – which acted in a litigation to close the original website down – was targeted by the new site, which listed the firm as one of the “Solicitors from Hell” and made “highly defamatory” statements about the firm.
A judge at the High Court in London awarded the solicitors damages of £10,000 after ruling that words complained of had a “clear tendency to put people off dealing with the claimant firm”.
Mr Justice Warby heard that Brett Wilson acted for the Law Society of England and Wales in an earlier action against Rick Kordowski – who set up the original www.solicitorsfromhell.co.uk – in which orders were made to close down the site.
However, the firm was targeted via a new site, referred to as SFHUK.com., which is devoted to complaints about “solicitor fraud, misconduct, incompetence, negligence, dishonesty, overcharging, corruption, embezzlement, lying/perjury and racism”.
The court was told that between October 2014 and January 2015 an item referring to the claimants appeared on the site in the “complaints” section – headed with the firm’s name and address, and the headline “Harassment”.
There follows a letter of complaint by an anonymous client of the firm, which accuses 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 claimant firm tried but failed to find out the identity of the operators of SFHUK.com, although it did discover that the WHOIS registry lists “Anonymous Speech” as the website owners – an organisation which specialises in providing proxy services to those who do not wish to be traced.
After a letter of claim and particulars of claim were sent to the defendants but received no response, the claimants issued an application to the court, which was served on the defendants “Person(s) Unknown, Responsible for the Operation and Publication of the website www.solicitorsfromhelluk.com”, seeking “default judgment” and “summary disposal of the case” pursuant to section 8 of the Defamation Act 1996, along with damages, an injunction and costs.
The particulars of claim alleged that the words which the defendants published on SFHUK.com bore defamatory meanings, namely that the firm “does not provide competent services” and that it “unscrupulously inflates costs”.
It also claimed that then words suggest that the firm’s work is “sub-standard and poor value for money” and that the staff and/or partners are “rude, threatening, intimidating and unprofessional”.
Further, it alleged that prospective clients seeking to instruct the firm would receive “sub-standard advice and lose out financially”.
Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013 provides that a statement is not defamatory “unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”, and by section 1(2) it is provided that harm to the reputation of a body that trades for profit “is not serious harm unless it has caused or is likely to cause the body serious financial loss”.
The judge was satisfied that the pleaded allegations “make out a case for the grant of injunctions” against the defendants and he decided to grant the injunctions sought as part of the default judgment process.
In a written judgment, Mr Justice Warby said: “It is alleged that the defendants have published allegations of a highly defamatory nature, which have caused serious financial loss, and that they are continuing to do so. It is alleged that the allegations are false. None of this has been contested by the defendants. The particulars of claim also set out the defendants’ failure to respond to the letter of claim and these proceedings.
“It is beyond dispute that the words complained of had a clear tendency to put people off dealing with the claimant firm. That was their evident purpose. The allegations are serious, and would be likely to deter anybody unfamiliar with the firm from engaging its services.
“There is affirmative evidence that in all probability one client was deterred, with probable financial loss. I have no doubt that others were put off, and that there has been a financially damaging impact on a serious scale. Quite apart from this, the award needs to serve the purpose of vindication.”
Because section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 was engaged, the judge added that consideration had to be given to the importance of the right to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
He explained: “I must be satisfied that the injunctive relief granted represents an interference which is necessary in the pursuit of a legitimate aim, and goes no further than required. I am so satisfied. The legitimate aim is the protection of the reputation of the claimant against false and damaging allegations of misconduct. I bear in mind that it is contrary to the public interest for false or misleading information to be issued on matters of this kind.”
On the claim for summary relief, the judge added that the award of £10,000 was “amply merited” on the facts of the case.