In football, the match-day programme is normally associated with player profiles, the manager’s column, team sheets and plenty of glossy pictures of the stars of the day. In the case of Leeds United in early 2007, the match-day programme also contained certain articles written by Ken Bates (who was then in de facto control of the club) which, according to a recent Court of Appeal decision, amounted to harassment of not just the individual businessman at whom the articles were targeted, but also his wife. The case provides a useful reminder of what constitutes “harassment” so as to justify proceedings for the recovery of damages, but also clarifies the law in terms of the range of people who may rightfully sue for such harassment.
Harassment as a legal concept is covered by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Section 1(1) of that Act provides that – “A person must not pursue a course of conduct –
(a) which amounts to harassment of another, and
(b) which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.
The Act goes on to explain that references to harassing a person include alarming the person or causing distress, and that the “course of conduct” requires conduct on at least two occasions in relation to a single person.
The Act makes pursuing such a course of conduct a criminal offence, for which a person can be liable to imprisonment of up to six months, but harassment also provides victims with a civil remedy, so that they may bring a claim in which damages may be awarded for (among other things) any anxiety caused by the harassment and any financial loss resulting from it.
In the above case, the Court was concerned with articles written by Ken Bates in Leeds United’s match-day programmes, particularly in March 2007 when he drew fans’ attention to his grievances with Melvyn Levi, who was a prominent member of a consortium of local businessmen formed as part of a previous takeover of the Club some years earlier. In an article entitled “The Enemy Within”, he referred to Mr Levi’s behaviour as “totally scurrilous”, described some demands made by Mr Levi as “little short of blackmail” and suggested that readers should put questions to Mr Levi, publishing his home address. In the following week’s programme, Mr Bates accused Mr Levi of trying to frighten off would-be investors and trying to blackmail him personally into paying Mr Levi money to go away. Mr Bates wrote, “Thanks Melvyn. By the way, you do know that your phone number is in the book don’t you.”
The Court of Appeal looked at what it described as “the important question: to what extent, if at all, may a person who has been harmed…from harassment aimed at someone else…avail herself of the protection of the civil remedies” afforded under the Act. This was a novel point to consider because previous cases had made it clear that actionable harassment had to involve a course of conduct targeted at an individual, and had left open the question of whether a secondary person other than the target might succeed in a claim for harassment. The case of Levi v Bates* makes it clear that they can. Mrs Levi was – crucially – foreseeably, and directly, harmed by the course of conduct targeted at her husband. She was caused distress and anxiety by Mr Bates’ articles, as she feared disgruntled and hostile supporters calling or appearing at the family home as a result of them. The Court awarded her £6,000 in damages as a result.
As ever, the unique world of professional football continues to throw up stories which it is hard to think of as appearing in other walks of life. However, for everyone subject to the law on harassment, the breadth of those who may potentially have a valid claim has been clearly defined as a result of a football mogul’s words in the inside pages of the match-day programme.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* (1) Melvyn Levi (2) Carole Levi v (1) Kenneth Bates (2) Leeds United Football Club Limited (3) Yorkshire Radio Limited  EWCA Civ 206