Blackpool Football Club: In-house lawyer wins damages in ‘struck off’ libel case
By Jonathan Copping, Sports Lawyer, Bolt Burdon Law Firm, London, United Kingdom
The in-house solicitor for Blackpool Football Club, Graham Woodward, has been awarded £18,000.00 in damages in a successful claim for libel following the posting of online comments about him, including the words:
“The well-known struck off solicitor Graham Woodward”.
It was claimed by Woodward that the defendant, Andrew Grice, posted libelous comments on two websites (‘Fansonline’ and ‘backhenrystreet’), in which it was alleged that Woodward had been struck off from acting as a solicitor. In fact, Woodward has never been struck off and continues to practise as a solicitor.
In the claim, Woodward stated that the inferential meaning of the words posted online was that he had been struck off the roll of solicitors by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as a result of some misconduct on his part and that he continued to practise as a solicitor when he was not entitled to do so because of being struck off.
Woodward claimed that the words used had caused, or were likely to cause, serious harm to his personal and professional reputation and he had suffered considerable hurt, distress and embarrassment.
In his defence, Grice stated that the publication was very limited in both its reach and in the time it remained visible on the website.
It is notable that he initially failed to acknowledge that Woodward had not been struck off and it was only when it was shown to him in open court (during a search of the SRA’s website on counsel’s laptop) that Grice acknowledged the claim that Woodward had been struck off was untrue.
Woodward successfully obtained summary judgment in relation to the comments posted on Fansonline. Therefore, it was left for the court to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to him.
In arriving at the figure of £18,000.00, Mr Justice King, sitting in the High Court in Manchester, in the North of England, stated:
“as I have said this is a serious libel and was not one to be construed as some mere tongue in cheek saloon bar banter”.
The Judge further stated that, if there had been no aggravating factors, the award for damages in vindication of reputation and to compensate for distress and hurt feelings, would be in the sum of £10,000.
However, due to significant aggravating factors, which the Court referred to as Grice’s state of mind, motivation, persistence in maintaining the allegation that Woodward was struck off and the pursuit of several damaging slurs against his moral integrity in the course of the proceedings, damages would be assessed at £18,000.
This case highlights the risks with posting comments, particularly reckless ones, on websites. Whilst Grice had a long running dispute with the employers of Woodward, posting such comments online was not justified and turned out to be a particularly expensive error!