Insights High Court awards Chairman of Blackpool FC aggravated damages of £30,000 for libellous comments posted on a supporters’ website.

The defamatory material relating to the claimant, Karl Oyston, was posted on an online forum for Blackpool fans, entitled “BackHenryStreet”, on 25 June 2015 by the defendant, Stephen Reed, who along with a number of other Blackpool fans, had become concerned with the way the club had been managed since the claimant’s father was involved in its purchase.  Amongst other things, the material accused the claimant of subjecting the defendant to a foul-mouthed rant in a public place and brandishing a shotgun in a way that made him fear for his life.

Libel proceedings were issued in July 2015 and judgment was entered in default.  The matter now before the court was what should be awarded to the claimant by way of damages.  The claimant sought aggravated damages on the basis that following the publication, the defendant did not apologise or retract the allegations and until the first morning of the hearing was still asserting their truth.  The claimant also complained of significant additional upset arising from an email sent to his wife by the defendant that was scurrilous, offensive and deeply unpleasant.

Balancing what little could be taken to mitigate the effect of the libels on the one hand, and setting that against the extent of publication, the continued repetition of untruths, the aggravation of it by sending the scurrilous letter to Mrs Oyston, the distress and hurt which the allegations had caused the claimant, and the need for vindication, Mr Justice Langstaff considered that the least sum which he could award was £30,000.

The reassertion throughout the case until the day of the hearing that the allegations were true and the defendant’s lack of repentance and continued and frequent abuse of the claimant and his lawyers were all factors that the court was allowed to, and did, take into account.  This was the case even though “lack of repentance” was moderated here by the defendant’s belated public recognition of the untruth of the allegations and the fact that he had unreservedly apologised and described himself as ashamed of the email sent to Mrs Oyston.

The judge also took into account the fact that the libel in this case had not been discouraged by a damages award in an earlier action brought by Mr Oyston against another Blackpool fan, David Ragazzino, in which the claimant had acted as his “McKenzie friend”, and in which the same allegations of brandishing a gun had been made.

The judge also considered it plain, not least from the “considerable body of support for the defendant in court”, that the effect of the allegations in the case appeared to have stirred up and maintained resentment of and hostility towards the claimant.  Thus, even though the allegations were made in an extreme and colourful form, they could not be dismissed as unlikely of belief by the general public who had access to the website.  This point was demonstrated by the fact that the defendant’s story about the gun was repeated and re-published on the websites of some national newspapers and had featured on BBC TV news.

The judge also considered it appropriate to make an order providing that the defendant might be committed to prison if in future he repeated conduct of the same sort towards the claimant or his family.  In this respect, on the basis that Mr Oyston said that the defendant was an undischarged bankrupt, the judge said he was satisfied that unless restrained there was a real risk that the defendant would repeat the libel or otherwise subject the claimant and his wife to harassment (Karl Samuel Oyston v Stephen Reed [2016] EWHC 1067 (QB) (9 May 2016) – to read the judgment in full, click here).