Court rejects solicitor’s appeal after libel claim is thrown out

Google My Business: Client left negative review

A High Court judge has dismissed an appeal by a solicitor who launched a £10,000 libel claim over an online review, citing her “longstanding and reprehensible” rule breaches.

Mr Justice Kerr said the decision by Master Thornett to strike out the action brought by sole practitioner Jacqueline Samuels should stand, even though the master was unaware of a witness statement she had filed when he made the order.

The High Court heard that Leeds firm Samuels & Co acted for Christopher John Laycock over a lease extension in the summer of 2019, with the aim of facilitating a sale.

The sale completed in October 2019, after which Mr Laycock left a review on the online platform Google My Business.

Kerr J recounted: “The publication stated in uncomplimentary terms the defendant’s opinion of the standard of service which was provided by the claimant’s firm when dealing with the lease extension. The publication included the phrase ‘as I found them quite deceitful’.”

Ms Samuels launched a libel claim in February 2020, seeking to recover up to £10,000 in damages. She applied for summary judgment that May, the application being heard by Master Thornett in October.

Master Thornett made an order that the phrase “as I found them quite deceitful” was defamatory. He stayed the remainder of the claim and ordered that it would be struck out unless an application to restore it was made by 5 April 2021.

Kerr J accepted that Mr Laycock “knew nothing” of that hearing, the claim having been served at the property he had sold.

It “beggars belief” that she genuinely thought that Mr Laycock had received documents at that address, he added.

Ms Samuels emailed Mr Laycock in January 2021, attaching a copy of the order. He responded by applying to set it aside.

The solicitor sought to restore the remainder of the claim and the relief in time. In May, in response to a letter the master sent to both parties, Ms Samuels wrote to the court, but not the defendant, saying the online review had been removed but she wanted a “direction to proceed to trial” in any case.

Kerr J said failing to copy in the defendant to the email was a “clear breach” of CPR 39.8, a breach which she repeated in September.

Ms Samuels filed a witness statement in December 2022, arguing that the case should not be struck out. Kerr J said this statement did not reach Master Thornett, who decided not to restore the claim and struck it out.

Delivering judgment in Samuels v Laycock [2023] EWHC 1390 (KB), Kerr J accepted there was “a serious procedural or other irregularity” because the master had not seen the witness statement.

However, “after considerable reflection”, he had decided it would not be unjust to allow the order to stand.

The judge said Ms Samuels, who represented herself, had done “precious little” to bring her claim to trial, and although she “has had medical issues” there was no medical evidence before him.

As a solicitor, she must be aware of her obligations under CPR 39, yet her breaches of the rule were “longstanding and reprehensible” and her apology had come “very late”.

Kerr J said the review had now been removed and Ms Samuels did not dispute that she had not responded to approaches for a compromise.

Another factor was Mr Laycock’s defence in truth or justification. “A trial would therefore have to include airing of the unedifying issue as to whether the claimant’s firm acted in a deceitful manner back in 2019.

“That would have to occur probably four years or so after the event, a delay which is quite unnecessary and was easily avoidable…

“In all the circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that it would be unfair and oppressive now to subject the defendant to a trial.

“I am satisfied that even though the master took his decision in ignorance of a relevant document, it would not be unjust to allow his order to stand. The appeal is therefore dismissed.”

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