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Committal for harassment

 

In the matter of an application by Gloucestershire County Council for the committal to prison of Matthew John Newman

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/3136.html

 

This is a judgment given by the President. There are, I think, three interesting aspects to this judgment. Aside from him quoting the very famous remark about freedom of speech not extending to the freedom to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre.   (which is my favourite joke in Rozencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead)

 

 

  1. The penal notice should be on the face of the order

 

 

So far as material for present purposes, rule 37.9(1) of the Family Procedure Rules provides that:

 

“a judgment or order to do or not do an act may not be enforced … unless there is prominently displayed, on the front of the copy of the judgment or order … , a warning to the person required to do or not do the act in question that disobedience to the order would be a contempt of court punishable by imprisonment, a fine or sequestration of assets.”

 

Neither the order of 16 May 2014 nor the order of 16 July 2014 complied with this requirement. In the order of 16 May 2014 the penal notice appeared at the end of the order on the second page. Although the order of 16 July 2014 contained, prominently displayed, the statement on the front of the order that “A Penal Notice shall be attached to paragraphs 1 and 2 of the injunctive consent order”, the penal notice itself was set out, just before the text of the injunctions, on the third page of the order.

 

Paragraph 13.2 of PD37A provides that “The court may waive any procedural defect in the commencement or conduct of a committal application if satisfied that no injustice has been caused to the respondent by the defect.” I was satisfied that no injustice would be caused to Mr Newman by waiving these defects. In the one case, the penal notice was prominently displayed at the end of a short, two page, order which also contained a recital that Mr and Mrs Newman had “previously received legal advice as to the implications of breaching the terms of this Order.” In the other case, the father was present and consented to the grant of the injunctions. He cannot by that stage in the proceedings have been in any doubt as to the consequences of breach.

 

Although in this case I was prepared to waive these procedural defects, I cannot emphasise too strongly the need for meticulous compliance with all the requirements of Part 37 and PD37A. I might add, for the benefit of the doubters, that this surely serves only to demonstrate the need for the family justice system to adopt, as I have been proposing, the use of standard forms of order available to all in readily accessible and user-friendly templates.

 

I would have two brief points in relation to this – the first is that the President is making use of the term ‘user-friendly’ in relation to the standardised court orders which bears no relation to any accepted definition of the phrase that I have ever seen used. If ten people in the country (outside the MOJ or designers of the form) can be found who say that these forms are a pleasure to use, then I will cheerfully withdraw my remark. I don’t expect to be taken up on that.

 

The second is that the reason the penal notice doesn’t appear on page one of the order is PRECISELY because the template form doesn’t put it there.

 

Be warned people – if you are drafting an order with a penal notice, screw where the stupid form wants you to put the penal notice and put it on the front page. Everything else can be moved down.

 

  1. Harassment of social workers (although the Judge says that harassment of members of the family was worse)

I turn to ground (ii), the allegation that Mr Newman has been guilty of “harassing” employees of the local authority. The allegation is based on the contents of fourteen emails sent to various of the local authority’s employees (who I will refer to respectively as R, J, K, L and V) between 17 July 2014 and 18 August 2014 inclusive and a message sent on 18 August via facebook to the mother of another of these employees. I set out in the Table annexed to this judgment the dates and recipients of each of these email messages and, in full, the text of each message exactly as sent. The facebook message was sent on 9 August 2014 to the mother of another social worker, Kimberley H. The message read “This is what Kimberley does.” Attached to the message were newspaper articles about social workers who boast about removing children.

 

Mr Newman admits the authorship of each of these messages, and does not dispute that each of the emails was sent to one or more of the class of persons referred to in paragraph 5 of the order of 16 May 2014. The only question is whether Mr Newman’s conduct amounted to “harassing” within the meaning of paragraph 5. Mr Jenkins submits that it did. Mr Newman says that what he did was neither intended to be nor did it in fact amount to harassing.

 

What the word “harassing” means in paragraph 5 of the order of 16 May 2014 is a matter of construction, and therefore a matter of law. Whether, in the light of that meaning, what Mr Newman did amounted to harassing is a matter of fact and degree. I adopt the same approach as commended itself to the Court of Appeal in Vaughan v Vaughan [1973] 1 WLR 1159 when considering, also in the context of committal, the meaning of the word “molesting” when used in an injunction. All three judges had recourse to the dictionary.

 

“Harassing”, like “molesting”, is an ordinary English word and there is nothing in the order of 16 May 2014 to suggest that it was being used in any special sense, let alone as a term of art. It is to the dictionary that I accordingly turn. The Oxford English Dictionary provides, in addition to a number of more antique meanings, an apt definition of harass which, in my judgment, reflects what the word harassing means when used in this order:

 

“To subject (an individual or group) to unwarranted (and now esp. unlawful) physical or psychological intimidation, usually persistently over a period; to persecute. Also more generally: to beleaguer, pester.”

Whether emails constitute harassment will, of course, depend upon the circumstances, in particular the number and frequency of the emails, their content and tone, the persons to whom and more generally the context in which they are sent. Here we have fourteen emails sent in a little over four weeks. On one day (9 August 2014) there were three. Initially, R seems to be singled out; then the emails are sent to a wider group of people. There is a pervading tone of menace: the personalised attacks (“How do you sleep at night?”, “If you have kids ask yourself what would you do to keep them”); the threats (“I have everything ready to completely ruin everyone who stands against us”, “people’s names … spread all over the world along with their pictures”, “set things right before they go terribly wrong”, “Soon your tyranny will end”, “Soon all your names will be appearing on a newspaper”, “someone, someday will be held accountable”, “unless you wish to put your career on the line”, “Hope you are looking forward to an early retirement”, “The revolution is coming are you ready”); the threatening count down; and the repeated unwarranted demands that X is returned.

 

In my judgment this was quite plainly harassment, not just pestering but psychological intimidation. It was deliberate. It was intended to achieve, by the making of unwarranted demands accompanied by menaces, the return of X to his parents notwithstanding the orders of the court. It is a bad case.

 

The facebook message sent to Kimberley H’s mother is, from one point of view, even worse. What aggravates the contempt is not so much the actual message, which in comparison with some of the others is comparatively innocuous; it is the fact that it was sent to Kimberley H’s mother. For someone in Mr Newman’s position to extend his campaign to a member of his primary victim’s family, whether partner, child or, as here, parent, is despicable. It is deliberately putting pressure on his victim by attacking their nearest and dearest.

 

 

Accordingly, I am in no doubt at all, I find as a fact, and to the criminal standard of proof, that Mr Newman is in breach of paragraph 5 of the order of 16 May 2014 as alleged by the local authority.

 

 

  1. The President goes back to Re J, and reminds us that whilst he was permissive, even welcoming of people publishing their stories (if not identifying the child) and even been critical of Local Authorities and professionals, there was still a line that people should not cross

 

 

In Re J (Reporting Restriction: Internet: Video) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam) [2014] 1 FLR 523, a case that attracted much attention at the time, I articulated, not for the first time, two points which in my judgment are and must remain of fundamental, indeed constitutional, importance.

 

The first (para 36), was the recognition of “the importance in a free society of parents who feel aggrieved at their experiences of the family justice system being able to express their views publicly about what they conceive to be failings on the part of individual judges or failings in the judicial system.” I added that the same goes, of course, for criticism of local authorities and others.

 

The second (para 38), was the acknowledgement that the “fear of … criticism, however justified that fear may be, and however unjustified the criticism, is, however, not of itself a justification for prior restraint by injunction … even if the criticism is expressed in vigorous, trenchant or outspoken terms … or even in language which is crude, insulting and vulgar.” I added that a much more robust view must be taken today than previously of what ought rightly to be allowed to pass as permissible criticism, for “Society is more tolerant today of strong or even offensive language.” I summarised the point (para 80): “an injunction which cannot otherwise be justified is not to be granted because of the manner or style in which the material is being presented … nor to spare the blushes of those being attacked, however abusive and unjustified those attacks may be.”

 

I stand by every word of that. But there is a fundamental difference between ideas, views, opinions, comments or criticisms, however strongly or even offensively expressed, and harassment, intimidation, threats or menaces. The one is and must be jealously safeguarded; the other can legitimately be prevented.

 

The freedom of speech of those who criticise public officials or those exercising public functions, their right to criticise, is fundamental to any democratic society governed by the rule of law. Public officials and those exercising public functions must, in the public interest, endure criticism, however strongly expressed, unfair and unjustified that criticism may be. But there is no reason why public officials and those exercising public functions should have to endure harassment, intimidation, threats or menaces.

 

There is freedom of speech, a right to speak. But this does not mean that the use of words is always protected, whatever the context and whatever the purpose. As Holmes J famously observed in Schenck v United States (1919) 249 US 47, 52:

 

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force.”

 

Freedom of speech no more embraces the right to use words to harass, intimidate or threaten, than it does to permit the uttering of words of menace by a blackmailer or extortionist. Harassment by words is harassment and is no more entitled to protection than harassment by actions, gestures or other non-verbal means. On the contrary, it is the victim of harassment, whether the harassment is by words, actions or gestures, who is entitled to demand, and to whom this court will whenever necessary extend, the protection of the law.

 

I do not wish there to be any room for doubts or misunderstanding. The family courts – the Family Court and the Family Division – will always protect freedom of speech, for all the reasons I explained in Re J (Reporting Restriction: Internet: Video) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam) [2014] 1 FLR 523. But the family courts cannot and will not tolerate harassment, intimidation, threats or menaces, whether targeted at parties to the proceedings before the court, at witnesses or at professionals – judges, lawyers, social workers or others – involved in the proceedings. For such behaviour, whatever else it may constitute, is, at root, an attack on the rule of law.

 

I emphasise, therefore, that Judge Wildblood was perfectly justified in granting the injunction in paragraph 5 of the order of 16 May 2014. Such orders can, should, and no doubt will, be made in future by the family courts when the circumstances warrant. I should add, moreover, that the protection of the law is not confined to the grant in appropriate circumstances of such injunctions. Harassment is both a criminal offence and an actionable civil wrong under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. And, quite apart from any order of the court, it is a very serious contempt of court to take reprisals after the event against someone who has given evidence in court.

 

I do not want anyone to be left in any doubt as to the very serious view that the court takes of such behaviour. In appropriate cases immediate custodial sentences may be appropriate. And deterrent sentences may be justified. The court must do what it can to protect the proper administration of justice and to ensure that those taking part in the court process can do so without fear.

 

 

 

The Court have not sentenced Mr Newman yet, and it is worth noting that one of the alleged breaches – that he put a mobile phone in his son’s bag was dismissed.

 

I deal first with ground (i), the alleged breach of paragraph 1 of the order of 16 May 2014. This, it will be recalled, forbad Mr Newman from “taking any steps to ascertain the whereabouts of [X] and/or foster placement, including using [his] mobile phone or laptop GPS positioning systems.”

 

The evidence in support of the allegation of breach was two-fold. First, there was evidence from one of the social workers who had supervised contact between Mr Newman and his son on 5 August 2014 that, following this contact, a mobile phone of unknown ownership was found in the bottom of X’s changing bag. Second, there was evidence that, when a key on the phone was touched, it began intermittently sounding what was described as a siren alarm tone and the front screen of the phone displayed the following text:

 

“! Help ! I lost my device! Can you please help me get it back? You can reach me at 000000 newman1985@hotmail.co.uk Blow me fucker, give me my son back”.

 

That is the extent of the factual evidence, though in his affidavit the local authority’s team manager says that “This action could be considered as an attempt to locate X or to intimidate his prospective adopters, carers or involved Children’s Services staff.” Be that as it may, the relevant allegation in relation to this incident is not of intimidation, only of breach of paragraph 1 of the order of 16 May 2014.

 

There was a clear prima face case that Mr Newman had deliberately placed the mobile phone in X’s changing bag, but despite hearing what Mr Jenkins had to say, I remained unpersuaded that there was even a prima facie case against Mr Newman that his actions had, within the meaning of paragraph 1 of the order of 16 May 2014, involved him “taking steps to ascertain the whereabouts of” either X or the foster placement. It was hardly to be imagined that the only people likely to pick up the phone – either a social worker or foster carer – would be so obliging as to contact Mr Newman and volunteer the information. And if the concern, as indeed the order itself would suggest, was that Mr Newman was using the phone itself in such a way (eg as a tracking device) as to reveal the relevant location, then that is not something, in my judgment, that could properly be inferred in the absence of evidence – and there was none – demonstrating how the phone could be used in that way. Absent such evidence there was, in my judgment, not even a prima facie case against Mr Newman.

 

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

6 responses

  1. Ashamed to be British

    Amazing what parents will do to protect their children from kidnap ain’t it

  2. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Not in our names – state-sanctioned kidnapping drags UK family law into disrepute.

  3. LMFAO – new technology baffles tired old hack judge!

  4. Pingback: Committal for harassment | Legal In General | ...

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