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Lifting the cloak of anonymity

 

Article date:  14/08/2013

A leading law firm has revealed how its use of a special court order could help expose previously-anonymous internet bullies.

Higgs & Sons says Norwich Pharmacal orders can offer valuable hope to both commercial and private victims of the bullies - known as trolls.

Matt Dudley, from Higgs & Sons' dispute resolution team, said its own use of the orders in a recent High Court case showed victims did have legal redress which could help them expose their tormentors.

His comments come amid growing concern over the amount of abusive online messages being posted on the internet and social media sites such as Twitter, facebook and Ask.fm.

Mr Dudley said: "The procedural rules governing English Court proceedings only make provision for the disclosure of documents before proceedings are issued where the respondent is likely to be a party to the subsequent proceedings.

"They are of no use to a victim of internet abuse seeking to obtain information from a third party in order to identify their perpetrator for the purpose of commencing proceedings against them (perhaps for defamation, harassment, malicious falsehood or breach of confidence). 

"This is where Norwich Pharmacal orders provide a remedy.  They oblige a respondent who is unlikely to be a party to any future proceedings but is to some degree involved or mixed up in a wrongdoing - whether innocently or not - to disclose relevant information to an applicant. 

"Norwich Pharmacal orders are typically made to enable potential claimants to identify wrongdoers, identify the full nature of the wrongdoing, trace assets and proprietary claims, and more generally plead their case.  In the present context, they can empower victims of anonymous 'trolling' or other anonymous internet abuse to obtain registration information from web hosts which they can use to identify their perpetrators. 

"For those suffering at the hands of individuals hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, this relief can enable them ultimately to pursue their perpetrators for monetary compensation.  Whilst there are ways of putting a stop to internet abuse without needing to lift the cloak of anonymity (such as reporting abuse through Twitter and Facebook), identification is a pre-requisite to pursuing a claim for damages."

Higgs & Sons' commercial litigation team have successfully obtained a Norwich Pharmacal Order from the High Court against a US Blog host.  The order requires the host to provide registration information with regard to an anonymous blog containing defamatory material.  Whilst the blog host was not legally responsible for the material published within the blog, by hosting the blog it was 'involved' and 'mixed up' in the publication of defamatory material.  This was sufficient to trigger the Norwich Pharmacal jurisdiction and led to an appropriate order being made. 

Mr Dudley said high-profile cases over the last few weeks showed the growing scale of the problem.

Labour MP Stella Creasy and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez received a barrage of threatening abuse on Twitter after Ms Criado-Perez successfully fought for a woman's face (Jane Austen) to appear on £10 banknotes.

"Mr Dudley added: "The need for individuals, businesses and other organisations to seek Norwich Pharmacal relief and similar redress will inevitably rise in line with the increased use and breadth of social media."

Higgs & Sons works from two offices in the Black Country - Waterfront Business Park in Brierley Hill and Kingswinford. The firm employs more than 200 people, which includes over 100 specialist lawyers.

For further information and advice as to the legal rights and remedies which may be available to you or your business, contact Mr  Dudley at Higgs & Sons on 0845 111 5050 or email  matt.dudley@higgsandsons.co.uk

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