Anonymous defamatory internet postings and disapplication of limitation period: Gentoo Group Limited and Peter Walls

Gentoo Group Ltd and Peter Walls issued claims against various individuals who set up a website and chat room forum, dadsplace.co.uk, on which they anonymously posted defamatory statements, including allegations of corruption, nepotism and the promotion of female employees in return for sexual favours by Mr Walls. The postings were made over a two year period from 2004 to 2006, and the claims were brought only after a long investigation to uncover who was behind the website.

Anonymous Internet Bloggers Ordered to Pay Record Compensation

In 2006, two of the defendants were found liable to the claimants with compensation and damages to be assessed. An injunction was also granted preventing them from repeating the defamatory allegations.

On the third day of the trial two other defendants, John Finn and Pallion Housing Ltd, admitted responsibility and were ordered to pay compensation and costs to the claimants. They subsequently paid the claimants £125,000 on account of costs. In November 2007, they agreed to pay £5,000 compensation to Gentoo and £14,000 to the employees of Gentoo who had been subjected to harassment.

After being served with evidence regarding the damage suffered by Mr Walls, Mr Finn and Pallion agreed to pay him £100,000 compensation together with his costs.

The level of damages awarded serves as a warning to individuals who post defamatory comments on websites, or who wage a campaign of harassment via the internet, assuming that they will be protected by a cloak of anonymity. That is no longer the case and with careful investigation their identities can be revealed, leaving them open to libel proceedings which, if successful, can result in a large award of compensation to the claimant. In the words of Mr Walls’ counsel, “The very substantial compensation payments made by Mr Finn and Pallion show that those responsible for scurrilous defamatory publications on the internet cannot escape liability in the Courts.”

Disapplication of Limitation Period

A separate claim was issued against Stephen Hanratty. In 2006, the claimants made a successful application against various persons, including Mr Hanratty, to disclose information relating to the identity of the individuals behind dadsplace.co.uk.  However, the claimants withdrew the application against Mr Hanratty after he provided a witness statement denying any involvement in the website or any knowledge of it at all.

Subsequently, during the course of further proceedings brought by the claimants, Mr Hanratty was identified as being the owner of an email account which he used to communicate with one of the defendants found liable to the claimants in the previous proceedings, referred to above. It therefore appeared that Mr Hanratty had lied in his witness statement in 2006 and was in fact involved with the website and the defamatory postings.

The claimants therefore issued proceedings against Mr Hanratty on 12 July 2007. However, the last posting on the website was exactly one year before, on 12 July 2006. Claimants must bring a claim for defamation within one year after publication of the defamatory article. They were out of time to bring a claim against Mr Hanratty in respect of any defamatory postings before 12 July 2006. They therefore made an application to the court pursuant to section 32A of the Limitation Act 1980 requesting that the usual one year limitation period be disapplied. Section 32A allows the court a discretion to disapply the limitation period where it would be equitable to do so and having regard to any prejudice which either party would suffer as a result.

Allowing the application and disapplying the limitation period, Mr Justice Eady held as follows:

  1. The fact that the claimants had issued claims against other defendants, and therefore had other means of obtaining vindication, did not determine the application in Mr Hanratty’s favour. In his words, “It may … be … important for a claimant to bring as many of those responsible before the court, so that it cannot later be said that those who manage to “escape” stand by their allegationsThere is nothing either disreputable or disproportionate about seeking to identify and challenge anyone responsible, especially in the case of allegations as serious as those complained of in the present case. It is a question of seeking to demonstrate as convincingly as possible that the defamatory charges are baseless.”
  2. The fact that there was no prospect of Mr Hanratty being able to pay damages or costs in the event that the claim against him was successful was irrelevant. As the judge put it, “Such an argument has to be approached with caution, since it comes perilously close to suggesting that a poor man is free to defame with impunity.”
  3. The claim was put as a case of joint enterprise or conspiracy to damage, which was unusual in the context of libel. However, the judge was not satisfied that the claim was so perverse as to justify it being struck out. Additionally, “there is no principle or rule of law which would justify striking out a defamation claim ab initio for the sole reason that the case on liability is based on joint enterprise.”
  4. The claimants may succeed at trial in proving that Mr Hanratty had been dishonest in his previous witness statement. Mr Hanratty could not claim to have suffered prejudice where the limitation period had gone by partly as a result of his dishonesty.
  5. The prejudice that Mr Hanratty would suffer, if any, was lessened by the fact that the claimants could sue him in any event if they showed that publication took place on the 12 July 2006 and further, they also had a claim for harassment against him.


Bloggers beware: Sheffield Wednesday Football Club & Others v Hargreaves

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.