In LJY v Persons Unknown  EWHC 3230 (QB), Mr Justice Warby granted an interim injunction restraining unknown defendants from publishing serious allegations of criminality against a celebrity, anonymised in the proceedings as ‘LJY’.
LJY is said to be well-known to the public due to his work in the entertainment industry. On 5 December 2017, his representatives received a letter from what professed itself to be a ‘highly discreet organisation’, acting on behalf on an unnamed female client. The woman in question is said to have been the victim of criminal conduct by LJY. The letter sought payment of £50,000 ‘financial recompense’, failing which the ‘details of the case’ would be released via news agencies and online.
In warning LJY of the damage this disclosure would apparently cause to his career, it referred to ‘the current political and social environment’. This, it seems doubtless, was a reference to the now heightened awareness around sexual harassment and violence towards women, brought about by the #metoo hashtag campaign in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (see our blog posts about #metoo here and here).
LJY was given a four-day deadline to comply with the demand, and told that a discount could be negotiated in return for a response within 48 hours. He was warned that bringing the letter to the attention of lawyers or the police, would result in the information being disclosed. A phone number – said to be unregistered and untraceable – was provided for LJY to make contact with the writer. Despite the threats, LJY immediately brought the letter to the attention of both the police, and his solicitors. The police indicated that the letter, which was clearly an attempt at blackmail, was likely to prove part of a wider-scam which had seen several other individuals targeted in the same fashion.
LJY subsequently instigated proceedings against ‘The persons unknown responsible for the demand for money contained in a letter received by the Claimant’s representatives on 5 December 2017’. He sought an interim non-disclosure order, relying on misuse of private information, harassment, and defamation. It was held that the relevant tests were met in each instance.
Misuse of private information
Warby J held that the information in question clearly fell within the scope of LJY’s private life, that blackmails represents a ‘misuse of free speech rights’ and considerably reduces any weight to be attached to such rights. The Court is highly likely to find that mass publication of a false allegation constitutes a misuse of private information. Although the publication of true allegations may be justifiable, on the facts of LJY’s case, the Court could be satisfied that he was likely to defeat any assertion of truth. Moreover, in cases of blackmail, even true allegations were likely to be subject to some form of restraint.
Warby J agreed that an injunction was appropriate to restrain harassment. This was because if the threatened act of disclosure was carried out, it would constitute harassment; it was not necessary for LJY to show that the tort had already been committed. Warby J noted that multiple/mass disclosures were threatened, therefore he was satisfied that there would be a course of conduct (although one would think that the letter, combined with even one disclosure, might also be sufficient).
The rule arising from the case of Bonnard v Perryman QBD ( 2 Ch 269) is that the Court should not grant interim relief against publication where there is any prospect that a claim might fail. Warby J noted that in Holley v Smyth  QB 727 (CA) this had served to preclude an injunction even thought the claimant asserted that the defendant’s motive for the threatened publication was blackmail. However, on the facts of LJY’s case, he was satisfied that there was no real prospect that a defence of truth or public interest could succeed, and therefore even the very high bar in defamation claims was met.
Having granted the injunction, the Judge turned to procedural matters concerned with cases against persons unknown. He reiterated that it was not acceptable for claimants with the benefit of interim relief in such circumstances to simply allow the proceedings to drift indefinitely thereafter. He directed that the injunction be served by means of a series of text messages to the anonymous phone number provided for in the letter. A return date has been set for 19 January 2018, and Warby J has directed that, unless the defendants identify themselves and provide an address for service, the Claim Form and Particulars of Claim can be served by way of filing at Court, and an application for default judgment can be on the return date.
This post originally appeared on the Brett Wilson Media Law Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.