This post originally appeared on Media Lawyer, the indispensable subscription service from the Press Association covering all aspects of media law. It is reproduced with permission and thanks.
A solicitor who was defamed by an anonymous posting on the Solicitors from Hell website won summary judgment and libel damages of £17,500 from Rick Kordowski, the man who set up and runs the site. Courts rarely grant summary judgment in defamation cases, doing so only when a defendant has no defence to the action.
Mr Justice Eady, sitting in the High Court on 11 October 2010, also ordered Mr Kordowski to pay costs of £28,000 to solicitor Megan Phillips, of law firm Bhatt Murphy, and issued an injunction banning him from repeating the allegations.
Ms Phillips’ counsel, Guy Vassall-Adams, had told the judge that Mr Kordowski had no chance of being able to justify the allegations – which were completely untrue – as he had made no attempt to verify them for himself and had allowed them to be posted anonymously.
The solicitors from Hell website states on its Home Page: “Name and shame those shady Solicitors. No need to register or even leave your name.”
Mr Vassall-Adams said the article about Ms Phillips was a “vitriolic attack on her personality and professional competence“, adding: “It is all completely false and malicious and has the hallmarks of a kind of poison-pen accusation, made under the cloak of anonymity.” The website, he said, allowed people to post articles about members of the legal profession, without contributors having to reveal their identity.
The allegations were taken at face value, no attempt was made to verify them, and Ms Phillips was not given a chance to respond before they were published online, Mr Vassall-Adams said. At some point the post was moved to a different section of the website where it had received more than 50,000 hits – more than any other article on the site, he added.
Ms Phillips, who specialises in police law and works in east London, told the judge she first saw the article in June this year and was “very upset and distressed” after reading it.
“I didn’t have any idea who could have written anything like this about me. The language of the post really upset me – it was very vicious.”
Mr Vassall-Adams told the judge Mr Kordowski was prepared to withdraw the article, but only if Ms Phillips paid a £299 “admin fee”, which Ms Phillips refused to do as she regarded it as “extortion”. Mr Kordowski had written a defence statement, in which he argued that Ms Phillips had “missed a golden opportunity” by not agreeing to pay the fee, he told the judge.
Mr Kordowski, who appeared in person, told Mr Justice Eady he initially had no reason to doubt the allegations, but had recently been told they were posted by a “cyberstalker” and agreed he would have “handled things differently” if he had known this from the start.
The self-employed graphic designer said he has no money, assets, or work at the moment, but Mr Justice Eady said this was “not relevant” when considering a damages award.
Mr Kordowski also said there were a number of disclaimers on the site, stating that he did not accept responsibility for the comments of contributors, but the judge said that, as owner of the website, he was legally responsible.
The judge said Ms Phillips would have suffered “concern, anxiety and distress” over the past few months, and the fact she was asked for money to remove the article was “disreputable” and an “aggravating feature” of the case.
Ms Phillips’ victory is the latest in a series of actions being brought against Mr Kordowski over the Solicitors from Hell website. Two judges have issued interim injunctions ordering him to remove material from the site and not to re-publish it, and one other solicitor settled an action against him after he removed the material about the man and issued a public apology for having published it. It is believed that Mr Kordowski also faces other litigation over the website.
Ms Phillips said today: “I am delighted that there has now been public acknowledgement that the posting was entirely made up and contained no truth whatsoever.”
Simon Creighton, the partner at Bhatt Murphy who acted for Ms Phillips, said:
“Megan is a solicitor who is dedicated to achieving justice and fairness for her clients and she brought this case to deter the proprietor of this website from causing distress to other similarly motivated solicitors. I am absolutely delighted that she had the strength of principle to take these proceedings and to continue through to a public hearing. This website operates on a cavalier basis. It appears that there is little attempt to check material before it is posted and no opportunity is given to the subject of the posting to respond. Instead, there is an opportunity to pay a fee to have postings removed once they have already been published. This is a world away from offering any sort of public service.“
Mr Creighton added: “We will seek to enforce the judgment on behalf of our client.”
Media Lawyer is grateful to Strand News for its assistance with this report.