Missing the Target – can indirect targets of harassment seek protection from the courts?
A number of celebrities have in recent times successfully made civil claims of harassment receiving damages from and injunctions against the accused in the process. However, can their close family members also seek such protection even though they are not the direct target of the harassment? Yes, said the Court of Appeal in a recent decision which is the first of its kind, in the case of Levi and another vs. Bates and others.
Leeds United Football Club (the Club) was taken over by a consortium led by Mr Bates from a consortium of businessmen involving Mr Levi. During this change of control, a number of business transactions were entered into between companies owned or controlled by Mr Bates, Mr Levi and Mr Weston, which led Mr Bates to holding a series of grievances against Mr Levi and Mr Weston.
Mr Bates pursued these grievances by making allegations against Mr Levi and Mr Weston, mainly in editions of the Club’s match programme but also by announcements on a radio station which he effectively controlled through a 76% shareholding. These allegations were attempts to encourage the Club’s supporters to take his side in a business dispute between the parties by confronting Mr Levi regarding his alleged dishonourable conduct. In the process, Mr Bates disclosed details of Mr Levi’s home address and telephone number.
Further to a trial in 2009 Mr Levi was awarded £10,000 in damages for harassment caused by Mr Bates. Although Mrs Levi was not a direct target the Court of Appeal subsequently found Mr Bates’ conduct also constituted harassment of Mrs Levi and awarded her £6,000 in damages.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Mrs Levi’s claim identifying that Mr Bates’ conduct was targeted behaviour towards someone, not necessarily the claimant, which caused that person alarm and distress. The judge concluded this was sufficient for Mrs Levi’s protection under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 as it was “plainly foreseeable that, if any significant number of supporters responded to Mr Bates’ incitement, they would cause Mrs Levi alarm and distress by an apprehension that this is what would shortly occur, even if, in the event, no supporters took up on the cudgels on Mr Bates’ behalf”.
The value of targeting remaining as a necessary factor in a harassment claim under the Act is that “it excludes behaviour which however alarming or distressing it may be, is not aimed or directed at anyone”. The judge also commented that alarm or distress suffered out of nothing more than sympathy for a targeted victim of harassment is insufficient to found a claim.
Prior to this decision only the direct target was entitled to protection under the Act. It can now be argued that the scope for harassment claims has widened allowing indirect targets to bring claims based on the fact it was reasonably foreseeable that conduct giving rise to harassment would also target them. This decision provides important relief for people in sports and their families who are often the victims of harassment.
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