Case Law, Northern Ireland, AB Ltd v Facebook Ireland, Libel damages for anonymous posts

5 03 2013

On 6 February 2013 Mr Justice McCloskey in the High Court of Northern Ireland handed down judgment in the case of AB Ltd and Ors v Facebook Ireland Ltd ([2013] NIQB 14).  We had a post about this decision on 9 February 2013.  The case concerned what the judge described as a “campaign of public vilification and harassment of the second, third and fourth named plaintiffs by way of publications made upon the Facebook website.” [5]  The full judgment is now available. 

Although the claim was for libel, the Judge granted the four plaintiffs anonymity.  This was because the judge considered that such an order was

fully justified, having regard to the factual matrix of their claims and the related principles, which are discussed in Re A Police Officer’s Application for Judicial Review [2012] NIQB 3 and illustrated recently in XY – v – Facebook Ireland [2012] NIQB 96. Without such an order, the plaintiffs’ constitutional right of access to the Court would be thwarted” [1].

The Judge noted that the claim against Facebook Ireland had been dismissed on 23 October 2012 (no judgment appears to be available) so the claim was only against the “Person or persons adopting the pseudonyms Ann Driver and Alan Driver”.  Bearing in mind the principle that the “law prescribes no rules limiting a person’s liberty to change his name” (Halsbury’s Laws, Vol 34, para 1272), the proceedings were properly constituted:

“in the modern era our legal system, mainly through the media of increasingly flexible procedural rules and practices, resorts to the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court where appropriate and a progressive emphasis on substance in preference to form adopts a robust and realistic approach to issues of this kind. As a result, the defendants’ attempts at concealment and evasion have been thwarted” [3].

Judgment in default had been entered on 16 November 2012 against the defendants.

In relation to the claims for harassment, malicious falsehood, defamation and misuse of private information, after having considered what he described as “voluminous affidavits”, the judge concluded

“The defendant/s has/have made a series of libellous statements about the plaintiffs on the Facebook site. These specifically identify two of the plaintiffs at least, while the others identify the plaintiffs by reference and by implication. This identification is readily made. The offending representations, which consist of both words and images, take the form of a series of gratuitous and malicious slurs against the character and reputations of the plaintiffs. They attack the marital fidelity, morality, integrity and honesty of the plaintiffs. In the most extreme of the four cases, they accuse one plaintiff [JW] of an unbridled licentious lifestyle and practices. They do so without subtlety or restraint of any kind. They are awash with malice. The test for libel is amply satisfied and damages are recoverable in consequence.” [6]

The judge found that the offending statements and images were “widely, read, digest, relayed and discussed”.  As a result, he awarded he assessed damages as follows.

“In the case of the plaintiff JW I award £20,000. In the case of the plaintiff SM I award £10,000. In the case of the plaintiff CM I award £5,000″ [10]

Finally, he concluded that the damage to the corporate plaintiff’s reputation was sufficiently vindicated by the awards to its officers, SM and CM,

In the last two paragraphs of his judgment the Judge made some general comments about what he described as a “growing trend of a disturbing nature and proportions” involving the abuse of social networking sites.   He commented that

“So-called “trolling” appears to be increasingly commonplace. There is much contemporary debate about evils such as the bullying of schoolchildren and its potentially appalling consequences. Social networking sites belong to the “wild west” of modern broadcasting, publication and communication. They did not feature in the Leveson Inquiry and, in consequence, are not addressed in the ensuing report” [13]

He noted that “respectable recent commentary” was available on the UK Human Rights Blog which he described as “a source of much valuable material and analysis”. [13]

Comment

Now that Facebook’s worldwide, non-North American, operation is run by Facebook Ireland Limited from Dublin, it seems likely that more Facebook cases will be dealt with by the Courts in Dublin and Belfast.  In the earlier case of XY v Facebook Ireland ([2012] NIQB 96) and injunction was granted against Facebook. For reasons which are not clear from the judgment, the claim against Facebook was dismissed in the present case.  The plaintiffs, instead obtained a largely symbolic judgment against anonymous defendants.  It appears that attempts to identify them must have been unsuccessful.

The Judge noted the rise in the number of similar cases.

The Judge’s final paragraph is of considerable general interest

“The solution to this mischief is far from clear and lies well beyond the powers of this Court. Self-regulation and/or statutory regulation may well be necessary. In the meantime, this unmistakably pernicious evil is repeatedly manifest. Recourse to the courts for appropriate protection and remedies is an ever expanding phenomenon. The courts in Northern Ireland have demonstrated their availability and willingness to protect the interests of those whose legal rights are infringed by the cowardly and faceless perpetrators of this evil. As the present cases demonstrate, the law, through the courts, penetrates the shields and masks of anonymity and concealment. Effective remedies are available and will be granted in appropriate cases. The courts will continue to play their part as the vehicle for the protection and vindication of legal rights and interests, where violated, in a society governed by the rule of law and belonging to a supranational legal order in which human rights have been placed at the centre, as a result of the Lisbon Charter of Fundamental Rights, a dynamic, revolutionary and directly effective measure of EU law”. [14]

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2 responses

11 03 2013
Law and Media Round Up – 11 March 2013 | Inforrm's Blog

[...] Case Law, Northern Ireland, AB Ltd v Facebook Ireland, Libel damages for anonymous posts [...]

28 04 2013
Case law, Northern Ireland, HL (a minor) v Facebook, How can the courts manage the Facebook phenomenon? – Rosalind English | Inforrm's Blog

[...] NICA 52,  AB Limited and Others v. Facebook Ireland Limited and Another [2013] NIQB 14, (see the Inforrm post here) and of course the potential for a service provider like Google to be liable for defamation after [...]

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