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05 September 2016

Court Dismisses Claim For Damages Over Facebook Exchanges

Summary of Judgment

District Judge Gilpin, sitting today at Ballymena, in the County Court Division of Antrim, dismissed a claim for damages brought by a teenage girl against Paul Frew MLA following a number of exchanges on Facebook.

Background

The girl (“GK”) sought damages from Paul Frew (“the Defendant”) arising out of references made to her on Facebook. The claims were brought under two areas, namely, for breach of the statutory tort of harassment under the Protection from Harassment (NI) Order 1997, and for the Misuse of Private Information.

The Defendant is the Member of the Legislative Assembly for the North Antrim Constituency and is the Chair of the Assembly’s Justice Committee. Prior to these proceedings GK had followed the Defendant on Facebook as this allowed her to be notified on her News Feed of any posts by him that might be of interest to her.

In late 2015 police were aware of concerns the residents in Broughshane and the Harryville area of Ballymena, had about anti-social behaviour. Incidents had escalated with eggs, stones and ball-bearings being thrown at people and property, and takeway food being smeared on houses and property otherwise being damaged. As a result of this anti-social behaviour the Defendant was contacted by various constituents who had been left fearful and frustrated.

The Defendant sought to engage directly with young persons who he thought might be involved in anti-social behaviour including meeting with them to highlight the effects of such behaviour and the potential consequences.

One of the actions that the police decided to take in response to the escalation of anti-social behaviour was to issue letters to some parents of specific young people, to inform the parents that their children’s names had been drawn to the attention of police in the context of anti-social behaviour. GK’s father was sent such a letter following allegations being made of her involvement in anti-social behaviour.

On 15 February 2016 GK, who was then 14, was out in Broughshane. She recalled that three residents sought to engage with her and others in her company. GK said that one of the boys in her company argued with the residents but denied that she swore at the residents and took no part in the exchanges.


Facebook Exchanges

GK’s evidence was that the Defendant and others were posting comments on Facebook about anti-social behaviour in Broughshane. The Judge said that it was unfortunate that the social media evidence put before the court, appeared to be less than complete and disorganised, however the first comment included by GK in the court papers was one posted by the Defendant, “3 Dwelling’s attached in Broughshane again tonight. Have met with police again for the third time in as many weeks. People living in fear”.

There followed comments made by a number of people, some directed to the incident in Broughshane, and others more general. On reading the posts on the Defendant’s page, GK believed she was aware of the identity of a young person who some of the posts were implicating in the anti-social behaviour.

In paragraphs 33 to 49 of the judgment, the Judge set out:

· an outline of questions posted to GK by members of the Defendant’s Facebook page:

· two messages that the Defendant posted to GK;

· a Messenger exchange between the Defendant and GK;

· a Facebook exchange of 16 February 2016;

· a Facebook exchange on The Broughshane Residents Facebook page; and

· a Messenger exchange.

The Distress the Plaintiff Alleges

GK said that as a result of the Defendant:

i. Posting on both his own Facebook page and on the Broughshane Residents page the allegation made by a resident of Harryville that she had been present in Harryville in January when a door had been kicked in;

ii. Posting on the Broughshane Residents page, in the context of a discussion about anti-social behaviour, GK’s name and home village; and

iii. Not deleting promptly some of the comments made by others on his Facebook page until after receipt of a letter before action dated 26 February 2016;

that she was upset and annoyed to the extent that she felt “branded”.

Harassment Claim

The Judge considered the Protection from Harassment (NI) Order 1997 which provides both criminal and civil remedies for someone who is subjected to harassment. He cited the elements that must be established to find liability for harassment. The Judge found that the impugned conduct did not constitute conduct of such seriousness that an actionable remedy could be provided. He said that some of the comments made by others on Facebook while undoubtedly unpleasant and unattractive in nature were neither targeted at GK nor any other individual. The Judge said that the comments did not deter GK from making her presence known to others by first tagging a friend and then engaging in exchanges with others.

Defence to Harassment

Having considered all the evidence, the Judge said that the Defendant acted throughout in good faith in making considerable attempts to address the issue of anti-social behaviour in certain areas of his constituency. He said he was satisfied that the Defendant had thought rationally about the impugned posts and had formed the view that to publish them was for the purpose of preventing and detecting crime.

Misuse of Information Claim

GK said that the allegation made by an unnamed person that the Defendant posted on both his Facebook page and on the Broughshane Residents page, amounted to misuse of her private information.

The Judge found that when GK allowed herself to be present on a number of occasions in public settings with others carrying out such acts, she could not claim to enjoy an expectation of privacy in relation to postings about it. The Judge said that it was also important to take into account that the Defendant did not make an allegation against GK, rather he repeated an allegation that someone else had made to him and afforded GK the opportunity to respond to it. The Defendant made it clear that his purpose in posting the allegation was to allow GK to “explain or least tell us your side of [the] story”.

The Judge said that GK had voluntarily chosen to involve herself in the conversation on the Defendant’s Facebook page about the anti-social behaviour including tagging the name of one person who she considered was being accused by others as being a ring leader and also initiating an exchange with the Defendant on Messenger. The Judge found that with such postings, GK indicated inferred consent given by her to take part in online discussions about anti-social behaviour in the area.

Conclusion

The Judge concluded that GK failed to establish liability against the Defendant and her claim against him was dismissed.

NOTES TO EDITORS

  1. This summary should be read together with the judgment and should not be read in isolation. Nothing said in this summary adds to or amends the judgment. The full judgment will be available on the Court Service website (www.courtsni.gov.uk).

    ENDS

    If you have any further enquiries about this or other court related matters please contact:

    Alison Houston

    Judicial Communications Officer

    Lord Chief Justice’s Office

    Royal Courts of Justice

    Chichester Street

    BELFAST

    BT1 3JF

    Telephone: 028 9072 5921

    E-mail: Alison.Houston@courtsni.gov.uk