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Protecting authorities from harm: Cheshire West and Chester Council v Pickthall

The High Court, in Cheshire West and Chester Council & Ors. v Robert Pickthall has ordered a defendant to end his “vitriolic abuse”.

The High Court, in Cheshire West and Chester Council & Ors. v Robert Pickthall [2015] EWHC 2141 has ordered a defendant to end his “vitriolic abuse”, which had been ongoing for over five years, by way of an interim injunction, after he failed to produce sufficient evidence to rely on the statutory defence provided by section 1(3)(a) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (‘the Act’) – exempting liability for a course of conduct pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime.

Background

In 2010, the defendant, Mr. Pickthall, entered a dispute with his landlord in relation to his private rented accommodation. When this was unsuccessful, he sought the assistance of Cheshire West and Cheshire Council and proceeded to send over 1,200 emails to the authority’s ‘Solutions Team’ before finally threatening legal proceedings, claiming over £1 million under the Human Rights Act 1998. Mr Pickthall included accusations of corruption in some of his emails and also produced an online blog that displayed the names of other members of the public that purported to support him.

On moving to a new home in 2012, Mr Pickthall began a second dispute when he became concerned with the location of a road near his house and the conveyancing history of the land. He obtained some documents via a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and inspected further documents at the authority’s offices. Despite the authority admitting that an error had occurred in the original conveyance in 1955, Mr Pickthall refused to accept that as the truth and instead accused several council employees of fraud and corruption. Between 2012 and 2014, he sent over 2,400 emails to the claimant authority, so much so that they felt it necessary to set up a single point of contact system - which Mr Pickthall saw as a form of criminal interception of his communications. He also produced leaflets which he distributed around the local area and set up a website that contained strident and repeated allegations of fraud, forgery, lying, corruption and unlawful interception directed at named individuals.

He also complained to the Local Government Ombudsman and the police, with both rejecting his complaints and the police recommending that a civil injunction (as opposed to a prosecution) would have a greater binding effect on him. The local authority wrote to Mr Pickthall in January 2015, informing him that they intended to bring these proceedings. He refused to give undertakings and stated that he had the evidence to prove his allegations in court. In 2015 the Information Commissioner’s Office determined that the local authority had properly applied section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act in declaring his subsequent requests vexatious.

The claimants sought an injunction under sections 3 and 3A of the Act, with these issues falling to be determined by the court:

  • Whether Mr. Pickthall was pursuing a course of conduct which amounted to harassment and which he knew or ought to have known amounted to harassment.
  • Whether he was likely to fail at trial in demonstrating that his course of conduct was being pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or was in the particular circumstances reasonable.
  • Whether an injunction should be granted.

Decision

The judge, Mr Justice Edis, granted the claimants an interim junction. Mr Pickthall did not dispute the claimants’ case and did not deny that his conduct amounted to a course of conduct which amounted to harassment and which he knew amounted to harassment which was intended to cause distress. The judge also found that, even if this were not common ground, the evidence demonstrated that the claimants were likely to establish these facts at trial.

In looking at the legislative provisions, the judge noted that the test under s1(3)(a) of the Act relating to preventing or detecting crime did not require a defendant to be reasonable and was therefore a lower threshold than that under s1(3)(c), which requires a person to show that the course of conduct pursued was reasonable. This meant that if Mr. Pickthall was not likely to succeed under s1(3)(a) then he would not succeed under s1(3)(c).

The court went on to find that none of the ‘evidence’ which had been put before the court proved any crime by anyone or even raised any serious possibility that anyone had committed a crime and that Mr. Pickthall had become obsessed and perhaps even exhilarated by his ability to cause distress by repeating long dead allegations over and over again. The judge concluded that he had long since ceased to apply any rational judgment of any kind in deciding what to do, that it was probable that he simply wanted to cause harm and that it was likely that he was succeeding

Mr. Justice Edis found that an interim injunction was appropriate and observed that, although elected politicians and public officials had to be subject to proper public scrutiny, this was not unlimited and they were not helped in discharging their public functions by having to deal with persistent vitriolic abuse. The restriction on Mr. Pickthall’s freedom of expression was therefore proportionate.

Comment

This case is another example of a situation of deliberate vilification targeted at local authority employees and councillors and demonstrates how the Protection from Harassment Act can be used in order to halt such campaigns. The decision will be welcomed by all those authorities which find themselves dealing with similar complainants.