Norwich Pharmacal orders are a nimble concept, as we discussed in this article in 2019. So nimble, in fact, that they are now being used to unmask internet trolls in cases of defamation. But just how far can they go?
In the recent case of Davidoff v Google, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin, head of the Media and Communications List, reminds us that strict requirements must be met before Norwich Pharmacal relief can be granted. Wrongs must be evidenced, and respondents on the receiving end of an application must be truly “mixed-up” in the wrongdoing; innocent third parties who hold information can't be compelled to disclose it. We discuss what lessons can be drawn from Davidoff and the earlier case of Collier v Bennett, after setting out the facts giving rise to each application.
Collier v Bennett
In 2020, the applicants in Collier v Bennett (C, R and O) applied for Norwich Pharmacal relief to uncover the author behind tweets coming from the twitter (now known as X) account @arrytuttle.
C was an antisemitism campaigner, R was a television presenter, and O was an actress. All three were Jewish and had taken active antisemitism positions in debates about alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party. The respondent was a Jewish barrister.
The applicants alleged that the account had been used to attack several Jewish people who questioned Labour’s leadership by harassing and defaming them. In 2019, after the account was linked to the respondent, it became private, and the tweet history was hidden.
The respondent alleged that he'd set up the account in 2010 in a town green dispute, and that various people had been involved with it. He said the relevant tweets were not written or authorised by him but accepted legal liability for them.
The applicants sought a Norwich Pharmacal order requiring the respondent to identify the author of the tweets and disclose those which related to them.
Davidoff v Google LLC
In Davidoff v Google, the applicants were attempting to identify the authors of “fake reviews” which (they alleged) had defamed their property management and estate agency business on Trustpilot. They told the court that the reviews came mainly from Gmail accounts which were set up in fake names and used only for that purpose.
Having already obtained Norwich Pharmacal disclosure against Trustpilot (to identify the email addresses associated with the reviews), the applicants were seeking to compel Google to identify the authors on the basis that it had “enabled” the wrongdoing (by facilitating the relevant individuals in signing up for a Trustpilot account). They alleged that the reviews contained serious and defamatory allegations that could cause them serious harm and financial loss.
The applicants had previously brought a claim for defamation in respect of anonymous reviews against two individuals (who had denied responsibility in the current instance). Those proceedings were settled in 2021 but were relied on as evidence that the applicants had previously been the target of anonymous online abuse of the sort relevant to the application.
The applicants sought a Norwich Pharmacal order so that they could commence proceedings for libel and/ or malicious falsehood, obtain damages and seek an injunction against the wrongdoers.
Requirements for Norwich Pharmacal relief
In both cases, the court considered whether the applicants had satisfied the basic requirements for Norwich Pharmacal relief:
- that a wrong had been carried out, or arguably carried out, by an ultimate wrongdoer
- that the relief was needed to enable action to be brought against the ultimate wrongdoer
- that the person against whom the order was sought was:
i. mixed up in, so as to have facilitated, the wrongdoing, and
ii. was able, or was likely to be able, to provide the information necessary to enable the ultimate wrongdoer to be pursued.
The outcome in both cases
In Collier v Bennett, only limited evidence in support of “the wrong” was produced. However, Saini J found it unattractive for the respondent (who had deleted the publications) to pick holes in the prospective claimants’ cases as to publication, content, and harm when the publications were in his possession.
The judge found that, on the limited material available, there was an arguable case that both C and R had been the subject of defamatory tweets and suffered serious harm (the evidence relating to O was vague and nonspecific, so no case was found). All other requirements were met, and Norwich Pharmacal relief was granted.
In Davidoff v Google, Nicklin J dismissed the applicants’ underlying defamation case as hopelessly weak. In the absence of evidence of serious harm to reputation/serious financial loss caused by the publication of each review, the defamation causes of action had no real prospect of success.
Further, he didn't consider Google to be sufficiently mixed up in the wrongdoing. While Google had provided the wrongdoers with access to a Gmail account, that wasn't the wrongdoing upon which the application was based. The alleged wrongdoing was the use of the Trustpilot account to post the review and, in that, Google had played no part. Two of the requirements weren't met, and Norwich Pharmacal relief was refused.
In the final paragraphs of his judgment, Nicklin J noted that he would likely have come to a different conclusion, on discretionary grounds, had the application been made in respect of a defamatory email sent from the Gmail account, as in those circumstances he would likely have found Google had been involved in (or had facilitated) the transmission of the email.
It's clear that Nicklin J considered Davidoff v Google an important case in which to develop existing case law in relation to what amounts to being “mixed up” in the wrongdoing. His judgment is a useful summary of the principles to be drawn from previous cases and will be the starting point for anyone wanting to explore this type of relief.
What is also clear is that it isn't enough for an applicant to simply assert that the elements of the underlying claim are made out: evidence is essential, especially in claims for relief against parties who are less clearly involved in the wrongdoing.
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