‘Heir hunters’ hunted? Disclosure ordered in genealogists’ libel battle

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22 February 2016


Judge Moloney: genealogists were “commercial rivals”

A court battle between two leading probate genealogists, or ‘heir hunters’ – which includes allegations that one made anonymous comments about the other online – has come to light with publication of a High Court ruling granting a pre-action disclosure order.

Anglia Research Services applied for the order as part of a potential claim in both defamation and harassment against Finders Genealogists.

Finders, according to its website, has featured prominently in the BBC TV series Heir Hunters, while Anglia, its website says, has been “heavily involved” with the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

Judge Moloney QC, sitting as a High Court judge, described the firms as “commercial rivals in the highly specialised and competitive business of ‘heir hunting’.”

Ruling in Anglia Research Services & Anor v Finders Genealogists & Anor [2016] EWH 297 (QB), he said that for the purposes of this decision, the court was not reaching any final decision as to the underlying merits of the claimants’ case. “The defendants dispute that case to a substantial extent, and make counter-allegations of their own,” he recounted.

With that proviso, he laid out the sequence of events according to the claimants. They said that, starting in July 2014, an anonymous Twitter campaign was pursued against Peter Turvey, managing director of Anglia Research, and his son Philip, “in each case under the disparaging name of Purvey”.

A Norwich Pharmacal disclosure order “indicated that these Twitter accounts had been created by an employee” of Finders.

Judge Moloney said one aspect of Anglia’s business was that “it not only locates the heirs but provides probate and administration services to realise the assets of the estate” and as a result became involved in removing squatters from a property in Charlton, south-east London.

“In November 2014, the claimants became aware that one of the squatters had published material defamatory of the claimants on the petition website Change.org and on YouTube. The claimants succeeded in having that material taken down from those websites.”

Although it was not suggested that the defendants were involved in the initial preparation or publication of that petition, the claimants said further Norwich Pharmacal applications revealed that Daniel Curran, principal of Finders International, was “later responsible for pseudonymous postings on the well-respected Which? website which gave a link to the defamatory petition, and also for a defamatory posting on Change.org’s own website”.

The claimants said that solicitors for Finders and Mr Curran, responding to their letter before action in the summer of 2015, admitted authorship of the “various items” mentioned, but denied they gave rise to actionable claims.

Judge Moloney said that following the defendant’s response, the claimants reported three subsequent events – including an employee of Finders allegedly sending a potential client an email, with a file attached containing “much of the defamatory Change.org petition” – that they said showed the defendants were “continuing to pursue a campaign of defaming and harassing them”.

On that on that basis they applied for pre-action disclosure under CPR 31.16.

The judge said that a day after the application was issued, the claimants issued a “set of proceedings” relating to some of the same subject matter as the application and before the disclosure application could be heard.

Along with the existing libel proceedings, he said Anglia Research was “contemplating” a second set of proceedings, including defamation and harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

“The claimants’ present evidence of a campaign against them is sufficiently strong that they cannot fairly be described as ‘fishing’,” he said.

“The defendants will have to give the disclosure anyway if proceedings are commenced, so it is an issue of timing rather than principle. And all that is required by the order sought is a reasonable and proportionate search, likely to be carried out by a fairly straightforward interrogation of the defendants’ own computers.”

Judge Moloney concluded that the claimants had made out a “clear and strong case” for the exercise of the court’s discretion under CPR 31.16 to order pre-action disclosure in their favour, and so ordered.

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