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The Law Column: A click too far?


It might be worth having a pen and paper in hand for this one – the timeline may be a little bit difficult to keep up with. We’ve all been there – you have a reader that simply does not like you and is like a dog with a bone. Most of them though, won’t make claims left right and centre on an unfounded basis.

But I want to tell you about the first English case that has looked into the legal standpoint of ‘liking’ a page on Facebook.

Advertiser and Times Ltd (“ATL”) publishes local newspapers in Hampshire called The New Milton Advertiser & Lymington Times (“The A&T”). Mr Curry & Ms Woodford are the directors of ATL, and also siblings. Mr Caine is a local businessman that knew Mr Curry & Ms Woodford’s father.

Mr Caine said that he was a friend of the father whereas the siblings disagreed with this. They said that Mr Caine was “unjustifiably meddling in his affairs by advising him (when he was suffering from dementia) to revoke a Lasting Power of Attorney given in Mr Curry’s favour”. The attorney was not revoked and Mr Curry was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Subsequently, Mr Caine brought three claims against ATL and Mr Curry alleging libel and malicious falsehood in respect of articles published in the A&T or on a Facebook page called “New Milton Watch – The Truth” (“the Truth Page”).

Mr Caine ran a rival page called “New Milton Watch” (“Mr Caine’s Page”). The Truth Page was critical of Mr Caine’s page and Mr Caine alleged that it was critical of him too.

Importantly, the Truth Page was not operated by Mr Curry, Ms Woodford, the A&T or ATL.

Nevertheless, Mr Caine claimed that Mr Curry & Ms Woodford were or became liable for content published on the Truth Page because they ‘Liked’ the Truth Page.

Mr Caine clearly had a strong dislike of Mr Curry, Ms Woodford and the ATL. In 2015 Mr Caine had a dispute with a local tyre company. He reported them for theft but ended up himself being prosecuted with public order offences. The A&T reported on the trial and Mr Caine wrote a letter of claim in respect of that article, alleging libel.

This initial claim was a procedural nightmare, to say the least. There were numerous applications to deal with the procedural failures, limitation questions, strike-out applications and there was an appeal by Mr Caine but ultimately the Court ruled in favour of Mr Curry, Ms Woodford and the ATL.

In fact, Mr Caine’s applications were recorded by the Judge as totally without merit – which in the legal world is the equivalent of a Paul Hollywood handshake on the Great British Bake Off.

Mr Caine wasn’t happy with the Court’s decision. He appealed twice on the first claim and failed both times. He must have known what was coming as he issued a second claim before he appealed the decision in the first claim (I hope you’re keeping up!). In fact the second claim was issued just after he received the draft decision of the Judge in his first claim.

By his second claim, Mr Caine claimed that Mr Curry & Ms Woodford were responsible for the content of the Truth Page by ‘liking’ the page.

The particular posts on the Truth Page that Mr Caine was complaining about were all authored by third parties. You can see why he wasn’t happy when he was described as a “horrible waste of human air” and “a stupid pathetic waste of a human” (which, by the way, the Judge later said would probably be defensible).

Again, make way for a case riddled with complete procedural failings that was struck out – again as totally without merit.

Mr Caine still remained unhappy. Here we go – claim three.  This was almost identical to claim two but, in Mr Caine’s opinion, included better Particulars of Claim with the libel “unequivocally and succinctly laid out” (spoiler – it wasn’t).

By this point, the Truth Page didn’t even exist anymore so the remedy that Mr Caine was asking for (Mr Curry & Ms Woodford to stop ‘promoting’ defamatory statements about him) had already been inadvertently achieved.

Mr Curry & Ms Woodford rightly applied to strike out the claim on the basis that it was simply Mr Caine trying to have another go after his claim was dismissed before.

The Court decided that his third claim be struck out as he was simply trying to attack a final decision made by the Court. It was again ruled that this claim was totally without merit.

As a result, the Court made an Extended Civil Restraint Order (“ECRO”) against Mr Caine which prevents him from bringing another claim for a period of two years. I’d bet my bottom dollar Mr Caine spends the next two years re-formulating his claim – I bet this one isn’t over yet!

Despite being an interesting tale (as long as you were not involved in it!), it has implication for those journalists who are prolific users of social media.

It’s good to see that the Court is taking a common sense and consistent approach in keeping up with social media. Just because we may ‘like’ a page it doesn’t mean we condone the posts on that page.

I’m sure we all have those pages that we ‘like’ where somebody puts some stupid comment that we just scroll past – could you imagine the claims if the Court had decided that those who like that page then become liable for that post!

Nevertheless, this may be a reminder to have a look at exactly what we do ‘like’ on Facebook.