Mr Justice Tugendhat has slammed a claimant who attempted to sue London Evening Standard journalist Andrew Gilligan calling the case an “attempt at extortion”.
Throwing out the claim the High Court judge said the dispute, alleging breach of confidence, or misuse of private information, was a “breach of process”.
Claimant Peter Abbey instructed lawyers at PSB Law four years after the disputed article was published and shortly after the demise of the News of the World in 2011. 5RB’s William Bennett led the claim.
RPC partner Keith Mathieson was instructed for the reporter and his joined defendants the then publisher of London Evening Standard, Associated Newspapers, with 5RB’s Desmond Browne QC instructed.
Abbey was a former associate of Sebastian Coe, chair of the London Organising Committee for the Olympics Games, and according to Gilligan’s 2007 story ran a company called the Complete Leisure Group, which controlled Lord Coe’s commercial interests and image rights.
The article stated that a series of emails obtained by Gilligan revealed that the company was being threatened with legal action after it failed to file annual accounts. It was also revealed through an email thread that the company did not have sufficient cash to pay its debts.
The claimant’s lawyers contended that it was a breach of process for Gilligan to have the emails, adding that they had been taken without Abbey’s consent.
The defendants countered that they had no duty of confidentiality to the claimant and he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of any of it. Abbey suffered no loss or damage himself, and he cannot claim damages on behalf of third parties.
They further argued that there was a public interest defence for publishing the story. The claim, the defendants added, was an abuse of process.
In a damning judgment Tugendhat J stated: “What’s troubling here is that Mr Abbey repeatedly alleged that the defendants had committed criminal offences which are serious, and which were of the kind which had led to the demise of the News of the World (followed by reports of payments of very large sums of money to persons whose phones had been hacked), but in circumstances where there was no evidence to support those allegations.
“I find that this was an attempt at extortion, and that it was an abuse of the process of the court to attempt to obtain settlement of this claim by that means.”
Abbey’s lawyers had stipulated on the claim form that he wanted a payment of up to £100,000 for the case, but would settle for a £3,000 contribution to charity.
Browne had argued that this was in fact a ploy to trigger a conditional fee agreement (CFA) to ensure that the claimant’s legal team was paid. The court refused to pass judgment on whether this had happened and therefore constituted an abuse of process.
Tugendhat J stated: “There’s no doubt that in correspondence the solicitors for Mr Abbey invited them to settle for economic reasons on terms more favourable than the merits of the claim justified.
“However, so long as the existing legal regime for CFAs is in place, it cannot be said that claimants or their lawyers who seek the uplift on fees, or any other benefit that the regime offers to claimants or to their lawyers, are seeking a collateral advantage of the kind referred to in the authorities on abuse cited above.
“They are simply doing what the current regime on CFAs entitles them to do.”