Judge in call to penalise defamation on internet

Wed, Feb 1, 2012, 00:00

A HIGH Court judge has urged the Government to introduce legislation making it a criminal offence to post “patently untrue” allegations on the internet about any person.

The internet has facilitated an “easy, inexpensive and instant” means of allowing “unscrupulous persons or ill-motivated malcontents” to vent their anger and grievances against people where their allegations are patently untrue, unreasonable and unjustified”, Mr Justice Michael Peart said.

Such postings can cause “serious distress” to adults and children and, in some “extreme cases”, such damage could “lead to suicide”.

He made the remarks when granting Co Sligo-based solicitor Damien Tansey various orders which effectively terminate the operation of the website Rate-Your-Solicitor.com.

Mr Tansey, represented by barrister Richard Humphreys SC, brought defamation proceedings against John Gill and Ann Vogelaar arising from comments posted about him. It was claimed the two defendants were running and operating the site as well as the internet services provider hosting the website. Mr Gill and Ms Vogelaar denied the claims.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Peart said he would grant mandatory injunctions, pending the full hearing of the action, against Mr Gill, Drumline, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, and Ms Vogelaar, Parklands, Westport, Co Mayo, requiring them to terminate the operation of the website.

The defendants were also ordered to remove material posted about Mr Tansey on the website and to refrain from publishing further defamatory material about him. They must also deliver up the names and addresses of all those involved in the posting of defamatory material, plus details about those who operated the site.

Mr Tansey obtained similar orders against Dotster, a US-based firm which he alleged provides internet services to those hosting the website. In the absence of any defence put forward by Dotster, Mr Justice Peart granted judgment against it in favour of Mr Tansey. The level of damages awarded to Mr Tansey is to be assessed later.

The judge said he was “entirely satisfied” the material complained about was “seriously defamatory” of Mr Tansey.

He was also satisfied any defence Mr Gill wished to put forward at trial had no reasonable prospect of succeeding.

Mr Tansey, a partner in the firm Callan Tansey Solicitors, said the rate-your-solicitor website has since 2007 published material on the site which wrongly meant he had committed criminal acts, engaged in dishonest appropriation of client’s property, lied to clients, engaged in corrupt conduct, engaged in unprofessional conduct, and failed to act in accordance with the highest standards.

As a result of the publication his character, reputation and business have been “greatly injured”.

Mr Justice Peart noted Mr Gill had made extensive complaints against Mr Tansey and other solicitors. A member of a group described as Victims of the Legal Profession, Mr Gill had asked Mr Tansey in March 2001 to act for him in an action against other solicitors and believed Mr Tansey had agreed to take on his case. Shortly afterwards Mr Tansey’s firm informed Mr Gill it could not assist him and Mr Gill believed Mr Tansey had breached an undertaking to represent him, the judge said.

No matter how genuinely Mr Gill believes he and others have been let down by solicitors, Mr Gill’s plea of justification at any trial had no prospect of success as the evidence put forward by Mr Gill was “nowhere near substantiating any wrongdoing of the nature alleged”. Mr Gill must address any grievances he might have with lawyers by the various means available, including a complaint to the Law Society or the Garda, the judge said. Mr Gill and others were not entitled to “take the law into their own hands” by publishing defamatory accusations.

The judge noted Ms Vogelaar had said she was a volunteer for the website who answers questions sent to the site’s email address. She had said she has nothing to do with the process of posting comments on the website, and does not run, control or organise the website, he added.

In calling for legislation, the judge said, as a result of the internet: “Anything can be said publicly about a person or any aspect of their life with relative impunity, and anonymously where reputations can be instantly and permanently damaged.”

He said, “so serious is the mischief” on the internet that he believed the Oireachtas “should be asked to consider the creation of an appropriate offence under criminal law, with a penalty upon conviction, to act as a real deterrent to the perpetrator”.