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Many of us typically receive many emails each day through the virtual universe. Some are vitally important, some unsolicited but interesting, some are junk, and some fall in a more sinister category where the sender seeks to maliciously harass, abuse or damage us.

This is an eventuality where litigators are often called on to try and stop such emails. This is usually not with a view to bringing a claim, or litigating but rather to put an abrupt stop to the sender’s activity.

These emails are typically ill considered, injudicious, sent in haste and with little, or no, conception by the sender of the extent of the power of the law to stop.

Previous experience tells us that when the extent of the legal remedies are brought firmly to the sender’s attention, this will in many cases be enough to bring the emails to a juddering halt without further action.

The wrongs typically involved in these emails are summarised below.

1. Defamation

These emails typically contain statements that either have caused, or are likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation of those vilified in the email. There is rarely an obvious defence to the making of abusive statements.

Statements contained in these emails are often demonstrably and clearly untrue. The recipients of and those referred to in the emails may well have suffered serious reputational damage as a consequence of the statements made in such emails – especially where they are widely copied to many recipients (often in practice the case).

2. Malicious falsehood

If these emails have been communicated to third parties along with the direct recipients they will have been copied to the third parties deliberately. They are, therefore, published deliberately. The statements are often false, refer to and malign the businesses of the recipients, made with an improper motive and they are made with the malicious intention of damaging the business of the recipient(s). They are frequently indefensible. They are actionable.

3. Protection from harassment

  • Civil remedies

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the Act) provides that a person must not pursue a cause of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of another.

These emails above are typically written with the obvious objective of harassing and distressing the recipients and are precisely a category of wrong which the Act was intended to curtail.

A civil remedy lies in favour of those harassed, which entitles them to make a claim in damages for anxiety and financial loss devolving from the harassment.

Any party breaching the provisions of the Act is susceptible to being injuncted to restrain such action.

  • Criminal proceedings

Any person who pursues a course of conduct comprising harassment within the meaning of the Act is guilty of an offence. On conviction the perpetrator is susceptible to a sentence of imprisonment of up to 6 months.

4. Anti-social behaviour order

The sender of these emails often act in an anti-social manner that was intended to cause harassment to the recipients. This is an offence [1]. The individual recipients of these emails almost invariably do not wish to receive them, or have them repeated in the same or similar terms, recipients may make complaint to the Police with a view to the sender being prosecuted and made the subject of an Anti-social Behaviour Order. Such an order being necessary to protect the recipient from the perpetration by the sender of further anti-social acts comprised in such emails.

5. Illegal communications

  • It is also an offence [2] to improperly use the electronic communications network to message any matter which is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character
  • These emails may well fit in that category (even if the content is true)
  • It is also an offence [3] for any person to send to another person an electronic communication which is indecent or grossly offensive, or a threat, or which comprises information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender.

The recipients of the emails above may make complaint in this regard to the Police.

What steps can you take?

Ideally an aggressive letter from a litigator will (and often does) bring these unwanted emails to a halt. However, although there are potentially significant costs considerations more aggressive remedies include:

  • Injuncting without notice
  • Claims for damages including exemplary damages (intended to ‘punish’ the sender)
  • Committal to prison for contempt for continuing incidents
  • Reporting any criminal offence to the Police
  • Disciplinary proceedings in the context of employment
  • Regulatory complaint.

For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

[1] Section 1 (1)(a) of the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998

[2] Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003

[3] Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act of 1988


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This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.