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Home // WHAT IS THE LEGAL TEST FOR HARASSMENT?

Harassment of individuals online and in traditional media is always a possibility, particularly with the proliferation of social media channels and online comment sections of well-established news and entertainment websites.  Nath Solicitors in London advises on defamation law and harassment and the legal remedies available to individuals who believe they have been harassed.

Clients should be aware however that this type of legal action should be embarked on only after careful consideration and specialist legal advice, The 2020 High Court case of Sube v News Group confirms that when bringing a claim of harassment you must be able to satisfy a number of very strict criteria. Here we look at some of the issues raised in this important case.

Sube v News Group: The Facts

It’s rare for a claim of harassment like the one in this case – brought against a media publisher – to go all the way to trial. In fact, although it has been legally recognised for some time that a series of articles or publications may amount to harassment, the Sube case is only the second instance of an harassment claim on et basis of publication being considered at a full High Court trial.

Briefly the facts were as follows:

Mr and Mrs Sube were French citizens, originally from Cameroon. They were involved in a housing dispute with their local council over the suitability of the social housing provided for the couple and their children, The dispute was widely reported in The Sun, The Daily Star, The Daily Express and other newspapers.

While the Subes had initially engaged with agents of the newspapers to encourage positive publicity for their position, in fact the articles did the opposite, attracting negative, explicit and racist comments in the comment sections of the various websites of the relevant publications.

One headline for example read “Jobless dad whines about £15k a year council home – and turns down five-bedroom house”.  The Subes brought claims for libel and harassment but only the issue of harassment (and a related data protection claim) made it to trial.

Claim Under The Protection from Harassment Act

The Subes claimed that the articles and the comments made by readers and published online constituted harassment under Section 3 (1) of the Protection from Harassment Act (the PHA). This legislation prohibits a person from engaging in a course of conduct that amounts to harassment and provides for compensation where harassment is established.

But how do you establish harassment under the PHA?

The judge, Mr Justice Warby made clear that it’s not an easy test to satisfy. He accepted that the Subes had been the victims of a media storm over a period of some eight weeks. He recognised that they had suffered distress, anxiety and upset. But even taking all of this into account he did not agree that they had been the victims of harassment by the newspapers in question.

Judge Warby stated that for harassment to be established from a legal point of view there must be

a persistent and deliberate course of unreasonable and oppressive conduct, targeted at another person, which is calculated to and does cause that person alarm, fear or distress.’  

To succeed in their claim for harassment the Subes would have had to demonstrate that the newspapers had behaved in away represented an abuse of media freedom so serious that it deserved the label of criminality. In the judge’s view they had failed to do so. Interestingly Justice Warby also rejected the claim by the Subes that the online posts complained of were part of the conduct of the newspapers.

Comment

This Sube decision has been interpreted as a significant victory for the press over individuals seeking to enforce their right to be protected from harassment. And it certainly is a warning for anyone wishing to make harassment claims against media publishing companies: only exceptional claims for harassment are likely to succeed. As Warby stated:

‘Nothing short of a conscious or negligent abuse of media freedom will justify a finding of harassment by media publication…it will be a rare and exceptional case in which these criteria are satisfied.’

Contact Nath Solicitors

We represent individuals in claims of defamation and harassment. We offer realistic advice in this complex area of law, and focus on getting practical results quickly and efficiently. Often our team is able to use dispute resolution methods to settle harassment and defamation claims by ensuring offending material is removed, appropriate apologies are made and some form of compensation is paid. This avoids the expense and risk of going to court. Remember – the Sube case is only the second example of harassment by publication case leading to a trial.  Please contact Nath Solicitors on 44 (0) 203 670 5540 or contact the firm online.

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