Judge refuses to grant solicitor injunction after “grave robber” claims

Collins Rice: Risk of future breach not sufficiently high for permanent injunction

A High Court judge has refused to grant a solicitor a permanent injunction to enforce undertakings made by the son of a client that he would stop making defamatory statements.

Mrs Justice Collins Rice said photojournalist turned gardener Charles Pycraft accused Lance Ranger of fraud, theft, money laundering and being a “modern-day grave robber” in the way he handled his father’s estate. Mr Ranger “strenuously denied” the claims.

However, Collins Rice J said the undertakings given by Mr Pycraft in March 2018 marked a “clear switch to restraint in Mr Pycraft’s conduct and he took them seriously”.

She went on: “The burden of the undertakings was considerable, and he was not a technical expert; the process of cleansing the internet was understood from the outset to be likely to be a complicated one involving ‘unknown unknowns’, and the possibility that traces would linger here and there, or that cached historical material would find its way back, was expressly acknowledged.

“And he did otherwise desist: he stopped the public commentary and restricted his activities to the pursuit of redress through proper and permitted channels.

“His evidence before me was that his life is now taking a new direction and he has drawn a line under his past activity.”

The High Court heard in Ranger v Pycraft [2021] EWHC 502 (QB) that after his father’s death in 2013, Mr Pycraft “became convinced there were serious irregularities in the management and distribution of assets relating to the estate”.

The “focus of his concerns” was a trust managed by Attendus Trust Company, a global fiduciary company providing professional trust, legal and business services, based in Switzerland. Mr Ranger is the owner and managing director of Attendus.

Mr Pycraft “sought to enter into correspondence with Attendus but, as they took the view that he was not himself a beneficiary of the trust, Attendus declined to engage with him”.

Collins Rice J said Mr Pycraft “took matters further” by reporting Mr Ranger to regulatory and law enforcements agencies in the UK, Switzerland and Mauritius – where he also operates a trust company – suggesting that they investigate the solicitor’s management of the trust.

“None of the bodies he approached agreed to investigate. Mr Pycraft tried publicity. He approached MPs. He went online with allegations against Mr Ranger of the most serious professional and criminal wrongdoing.”

Mr Ranger responded by instructing solicitors, Boyes Turner, who asked Mr Pycraft to remove the material and sign an undertaking about his future behaviour, or face defamation proceedings. Mr Pycraft signed.

Mr Pycraft agreed in March 2018 not to publish any further defamatory statements, to immediately delete all publications and posts identified in letters from Mr Ranger’s solicitors, to contact outside organisations with control of his posts and ask them to help with deletion and pay legal costs.

“The material specifically identified in the three solicitors’ letters cumulatively amounted to some 40 or 50 items they had come across.”

Collins Rice J said these accused Mr Ranger of international fraud, theft, and money laundering among other things.

“They memorably describe Mr Ranger, referencing the administration of his father’s estate, as a ‘modern-day grave robber’.”

However, Collins Rice J said that since signing the undertakings, there were “two single instances” of breach by Mr Pycraft – the discovery in August 2019 of three tweets from August 2017 which should have been deleted, and his briefing of an investigative journalist in November 2018, who in turn posted the story in an email newsletter to around 200 other journalists.

The judge said the tweets were “more likely to be explained by oversight than as a deliberate part of a continuing campaign”.

She said Mr Pycraft “might have thought it consistent with his undertakings” to pursue “legitimate lines of inquiry and redress” with the journalist.

He was wrong about this, “and this was a mistake, but I accept it may have been no more than that”. The judge added: “It is not complained that any defamatory material continues to be published.”

Collins Rice J concluded that the risk of future breach was not “sufficiently high” to indicate the granting of injunctive relief at this stage.

“If, on the other hand, Mr Pycraft gives any further cause for concern about this, any judge considering a future application for a restraining injunction will then have an additional perspective.”

The 2018 agreement also provided for a remedy for breach in that Mr Pycraft would pay Mr Ranger’s legal costs on the indemnity basis. “It was not argued before me that that was not enforceable,” the judge said.

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