Case Law: Levi v Bates, damages for harassment against Ken Bates and Leeds United [Updated]

12 06 2012

The Leeds United Chairman, Ken Bates, has been ordered to pay damages of £10,000 to a Yorkshire businessman, Melvyn Levi.  Judgment was handed down on 7 June 2012 [PDF] by Judge Gosnell in the Leeds County after a four day trial in April 2012. The Judge also granted an injunction restraining Mr Bates from commenting on Mr and Mrs Levi’s private and personal life, for two years.  However, Mr Bates was allowed to mention the on-going commercial dispute between him and Mr Levi as well as other non-private matters.

The dispute between the parties began after Mr Bates acquired the Leeds United from the Yorkshire Consortium, of which Mr Levi was a member, in 2005.  It has already led to a 2009 libel action in which Sir Charles Gray awarded Mr Levi £50,000 damages against Mr Bates (Levi v Bates ([2009] EWHC 1495 (QB)).   Mr Levi and his wife, the second claimant, made 10 allegations of harassment, 7 of which were articles in Leeds United’s matchday programme (see [7]).  The claimants also relied on a broadcast on the club’s radio station.

After setting out the factual background and the relevant law, the Judge considered the position of each claimant in turn.  In relation to the Second Claimant he found that only one incident which could be said to be harassment was in fact targeted at her.  This created an insuperable problem for her case:

“The statute makes it clear that a course of conduct must be conduct on at least two occasions. I cannot accept an assertion that harassment of the First Claimant must inevitably be harassment of her because of their close emotional connection and relationship. If that were the case every spouse of a victim of public harassment could also make a claim” [55].

However, the judge found that Mr Bates’ motive in making radio announcements about Mr Levy at Leeds United matches was to harass him [61].   In relation to the matchday programme notes the question was whether they were

“a reflection of [Mr Bates’] genuinely held views of interest to the fans of Leeds United? Or are they, as the Claimant contends, a vehicle for the First Defendant to pursue his personal animosity against the First Claimant by publishing partial, inaccurate and damaging comments about the First Claimant under the guise of freedom of speech“[67]

The judge found it difficult to accept that genuine Leeds United fans had any interest in the dispute between Mr Bates and Mr Levy, relating as it did to a disputed debt of £190,400 in 2004.  He concluded that

“the motivation to report matters which are derogatory about the First Claimant is founded in a personal grudge which the First Defendant has arising from the original business dealings in 2004. I find this is not a genuine attempt to report matters of interest to the fans of the club” [69].

As a result, balancing Mr Bates’ right to freedom of expression against Mr Levy’s right to privacy, the judge held that it was not an unjustifiable interference with Mr Bates’ right to freedom of expression to prevent him from publishing oppressive and unreasonable opinions.

The judge concluded that the

“radio broadcasts and article dated 1st January 2011 constitute acts of harassment. They were targeted at the First Claimant, and were calculated in an objective sense to cause alarm or distress; I find them to be oppressive and unacceptable when viewed objectively; I find them to be more than unattractive and boorish and are serious enough to sustain criminal liability in the event of breach“. [74]

There was a course of conduct in that the radio messages were broadcast on six occasions and there was one article.  The claim succeeded against all three defendants, Mr Bates, Leeds United FC and Yorkshire Radio Limited (which runs Leeds United’s radio station).

In relation to quantum the judge made an award to cover both psychiatric injury and injury to feelings.  The psychiatric injury was “Moderate”.  In relation to injury to feelings the judge considered the guidance in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire ([2002] EWCA Civ 1871), upated in Da’Bell v NSPCC ([2008] UKEAT 0044_08_1302).  On damages the Judge concluded

“Doing the best I can to award compensation for both elements of the claim and discounting the personal injury award for other causes and the overall award to prevent double recovery by overlap I award the First Claimant £10,000“. [83]

Comment

This case is a rare example of a successful claim for “harassment by publication”.   The decision comes less than a fortnight after the judgment in Trimingham v Associated Newspapers ([2012] EWHC1296 (QB)) in which a claim for “harassment by newspaper” was unsuccessful.  The Trimingham judgment was handed down after the conclusion of the argument in this case and is not referred to in the judgment.

The Judge’s conclusion that the conduct of the Defendants constituted harassment turned on the fact that he regarded some of their conduct as extreme and explicable only by an intention to harass.   The fact that there was intrusion into the private life of Mr Levy and his wife was an important factor.  There was, as the Judge found, no genuine public interest in the communications.

The limited basis on which the Judge found for the First Claimant – and his finding that there was no “course of conduct” in relation to the Second Claimant – demonstrates, once again, how difficult it is to prove harassment by publication.

The damages awarded are at the low end of the modern scale and compare unfavourably with the substantial sums paid in settlement of the phone hacking cases.  Although harassment “distress damages” have for some years been made on a modest conventional scale, there is some indication suggestion in the recent cases of a general increase in damages for where privacy rights are being invaded.  The Judge does not appear to have been referred to recent “privacy” cases such as Cooper v Turrell ([2011] EWHC 3269 (QB)) which support this approach (see the Inforrm Case comment).  It is interesting to compare the £10,000 harassment award with the £50,000 awarded by Sir Charles Gray to Mr Levi in his libel action against Mr Bates in respect of defamatory publications in three matchday programmes (Levi v Bates [2009] EWHC 1495 (QB)).

Finally, it is noteworthy that the Judge was only prepared to grant an injunction for a two year period and further limited its scope to permit the mention of “non-private matters”.  This means that the long running campaign by Mr Bates against Mr Levi can continue, provided that the attacks are not “personal” in nature.  It remains to be seen how effective this protection will be.

[Update] The judgment is now available on Bailii – [2012] EW Misc 9 (CC).


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19 06 2012
Law and Media Round Up – 18 June 2012 « Inforrm's Blog

[…] Case Law: Levi v Bates, damages for harassment against Ken Bates and Leeds United [Updated] […]

2 01 2013
Media and Law Review of the Year, 2012: Part 2, May to August – Judith Townend « Inforrm's Blog

[…] In a harassment by publication case, the Leeds United Chairman, Ken Bates, was ordered to pay damages of £10,000 to a Yorkshire businessman, Melvyn Levi. […]

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