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Council secures anti-harassment injunction in High Court against landlord who waged “deliberately offensive” campaign against councillors, lawyers and other officers

A Deputy High Court judge has granted Ashford Borough Council a final anti-harassment injunction against a large-scale landlord who engaged in a campaign of “repetitive, frequent, oppressive and offensive correspondence”.

The claim in Ashford Borough Council v Wilson [2021] EWHC 2542 (QB) was brought by the local authority and its chief executive on their own behalf and on behalf of the current and former officers, employees, councillors and agents of the council.

The defendant, Fergus Wilson, denied that he had harassed the claimant as a matter of law or in fact. His case was that whilst some of his correspondence and communications might be characterised as offensive or even "abhorrent", his behaviour had not crossed the threshold required for it to be characterised as harassment within the terms of the Protection From Harassment Act 1997.

Daryl Allen QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, made a series of findings of fact:

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i) Mr Wilson had engaged in a campaign of repetitive, frequent, oppressive and offensive correspondence with the claimants. “On occasion he has sent multiple letters in a day or over a short period of days. He has continued with correspondence seeking to resurrect complaints and events from many years earlier. The contents of his letters are repetitive and ignore reasoned responses provided by the Claimants.”

ii) The defendant's correspondence had included frequent personal insults directed at Ashford councillors and employees. A member of the legal department and another employee (W) had been the most obvious targets.

iii) Mr Wilson’s correspondence included:

a) two suggestions that a councillor should commit suicide;

b) numerous examples of personally offensive comments about appearance, weight, intelligence and capability;

c) unfounded accusations of criminal conduct including allegations of misfeasance in public office, perverting the course of justice, perjury and conducting restricted legal activities without lawful authority to do so;

d) unfounded allegations of professional misconduct;

e) frequent hollow threats of reporting an individual to CILEX or some other regulator;

f) frequent hollow threats of judicial review or other legal proceedings;

g) requests that councillors or employees should resign or should be dismissed.

iv) The volume of correspondence was at the level described by the second claimant, Ashford’s chief executive, namely 454 pieces between February 2016 and July 2020.

v) Mr Wilson elected to ignore the claimants' reasonable, proportionate and clearly explained proposals/requests to adopt a single point of contact system.

vi) He elected to ignore the claimants' reasonable, proportionate and clearly explained proposals/requests to adopt an email divert system.

vii) Mr Wilson sent multiple emails to many councillors in the full knowledge that those councillors had no responsibility for/involvement in the issue he was seeking to raise. “There was no legitimate or reasonable justification for sending those emails to those councillors.”

viii) His intention when suggesting that a councillor or employee should commit suicide was to cause maximum distress, offence and upset.

ix) The defendant's intention when sending personally offensive/insulting correspondence was to cause distress, offence, humiliation and upset to the named individual.

x) Mr Wilson’s intention when requesting that a councillor or employee should resign or should be dismissed was to cause distress and upset to the named individual.

xi) His intentions when threatening criminal prosecution of a named individual was (i) to cause distress and upset to the named individual, (ii) to pressure the council and/or the named individual into doing what he wanted them to do, and (iii) to influence the council to take action/not take action to his advantage.

xii) The defendant's intention when making hollow threats of judicial review or other legal proceedings was (i) to cause distress and upset to the named individual, (ii) to pressure Ashford and/or the named individual into doing what he wanted them to do, and (iii) to influence the council to take action/not take action to his advantage.

xiii) In addition to the above, when sending his emails and letters to the claimants the defendant was also seeking to frustrate and to occupy councillors and employees with extensive and repetitive correspondence.

xiv) If and insofar as Mr Wilson had a legitimate concern or complaint which he wished to raise, that concern or complaint was properly addressed by the claimants. “Any such concern or complaint did not justify the volume, frequency, tone or content of the Defendant's correspondence.”

xv) Whilst his correspondence may have commenced with legitimate queries as to steps taken by Ashford, its officers or staff, those queries were superseded by the repetitive, offensive and unacceptable correspondence described.

xvi) On a number of occasions, the claimants clearly and expressly informed Mr Wilson that they considered that his correspondence and conduct (i) was causing alarm and distress to ABC employees, and (ii) amounted to harassment. “Notwithstanding those warnings and warnings that the First Claimant would be forced to take legal action, the Defendant deliberately persisted with, and on occasions escalated, his correspondence and conduct.”

Judge Allen said that, in the light of his findings, he had no hesitation in finding that Mr Wilson’s conduct was harassment in breach of section 1 of the 1997 Act.

The judge said: “The Defendant's conduct repeatedly went far beyond merely irritating and annoying. It was deliberately offensive. It included numerous unfounded allegations of professional misconduct and criminal conduct. It included multiple threats of criminal or other legal proceedings which were never pursued. The Defendant's conduct amounted to harassment within the terms of s.1(1)(a) [of the 1997 Act].”

He added that Mr Wilson knew or ought to have known that his conduct amounted to harassment.” He had been informed on numerous occasions by the Claimants that it amounted to harassment. Any reasonable person in possession of the same information would recognise that the Defendant's conduct amounted to harassment [see s.1(2)].”

Judge Allen said a significant proportion of the defendant's correspondence was intended to persuade the claimants [and the officers/employees they represented in the proceedings] not to do something they were entitled to do or to do something they were not under an obligation to do. “The most obvious and significant examples are (i) his attempts to have Councillors or council employees disciplined or sacked on the basis of unfounded allegations, and (ii) his attempts to pressure the First Claimant into abandoning/withdrawing legal proceedings against him/his wife.”

The judge rejected the defendant’s arguments that in the particular circumstances his pursuit of the course of conduct was reasonable, and that the conduct did not come within subsections (1) or (1A) of section 1 and therefore did not amount to harassment.

Judge Allen rejected the argument made by Mr Wilson’s counsel that the defendant's complaints and correspondence were simply the reflection of genuine and legitimate complaints and could not amount to harassment.

“The authorities make it clear that that is not a sound proposition as a matter of law: conduct which may commence as lawful and legitimate may become harassing as a result of its frequency and content [see DPP v Hardy and Roberts v Bank of Scotland PLC]. Even if I accept that the Defendant's correspondence and conduct initially arose of out a legitimate grievance, the frequency and content of his subsequent correspondence, for the reasons already given, was oppressive, offensive and unacceptable. In my view it amounted to harassment.”

The judge also rejected the suggestion that the defendant believed that he was pursuing a legitimate objective or that he believed that he was passing legitimate comment on elected officials. “Many of those who were the subject of the Defendant's offensive comments and threats were not elected officials: they were public sector employees seeking to do the job that they were paid to do. In any event, his comments and his correspondence went far beyond legitimate comment. They were gratuitously offensive, intimidating and threatening. They were not "legitimate lobbying" of public officials.” [judge's emphasis]

Judge Allen also rejected the defendant’s argument that correspondence sent to person A complaining about/making allegations against person B cannot amount to harassment of person B.

The judge concluded: “The Defendant's intention was to cause alarm or distress to those individuals he complained about and against whom he made serious but unfounded allegations. Those individuals were the actual target of his conduct.

“In any event, it was foreseeable, and the Defendant foresaw, that they would probably be caused alarm and distress as a result of his conduct. In my judgment it makes no difference that the manner in which he sought to cause that alarm and distress was by making unfounded complaints and allegations to third parties.”

Judge Allen said it was “self-evident” that Mr Wilson would continue his campaign of harassment unless restrained by an injunction. “The interim injunction ordered by HHJ Auerbach has seen a reduction in but no cessation of correspondence from the Claimant. I am satisfied that a permanent injunction is required to prevent further acts of harassment.”

However, the judge refused the claimants' application to extend the terms of the injunction to prevent Mr Wilson from laying an information or otherwise seeking to commence proceedings in the Magistrates' Court without permission of a High Court Judge.

In the light of the judge’s decision the terms of the interim injunction were to be converted to a final injunction.

Responding to the ruling, the local authority said: "Ashford Borough Council is delighted with the judgment handed down confirming that the terms of the interim injunction obtained in July 2020 preventing Mr Wilson from continuing to harass council staff and councillors are now embodied in a final (permanent) Injunction.

"The judgment has vindicated the Council’s decision to take the unusual step of resorting to litigation in order to protect its staff and councillors."

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