Solicitor fails in libel claim over treatment of clients

Facebook: Comments did not cause serious harm

A solicitor has failed in a libel action against the consultant of another law firm over comments made about her and her practice on Facebook.

Mr Justice Warby ruled that Dr Katherine Alexander-Theodotou, who runs Highgate Hill Solicitors in London, failed to prove that the comments caused her serious harm.

Ms Alexandrou-Theodotou also runs a firms in Cyprus under her own name, which was the third claimant in the case.

The action arose from a dispute over the conduct of the litigation on the alleged mis-selling of off-plan property in Cyprus. The solicitor has been acting for many years for a number of British clients in the litigation.

The defendant Georgios Kounis, who is not a lawyer, used to work as a consultant for City law firm Maxwell Alves, which also acted for British claimants. He is now working independently.

Ms Alexandrou-Theodotou sued over Mr Kounis posting a press release on a Facebook page about the legal action in January 2017 that did not name the claimants, but that she said referred to them, and was understood as doing so.

She also complained about a webinar he delivered the following month, details of which were notified to Maxwell Alves clients.

She told the court that Mr Kounis had “destroyed my reputation and business and caused me serious damage to my health”.

Warby J first granted with the defendant’s application to strike out various aspects of the claim, some of which “contained a raft of quite serious allegations of wrongdoing, cast in rather vague form, with no apparent relevance to the claims in libel”.

He also limited the claim to the Facebook post, and ruled that the meaning of the post was “that the first and second claimants exploited the vulnerable position of [clients] Mr and Mrs Davies, victims of the Cyprus property mis-selling scandal, by charging them almost £30,000 in fees to help them and then failing to protect their best interests, and forcing them to fund alternative representation”.

Though this was “unquestionably defamatory” under the common law, the Defamation Act 2013 says a statement is not defamatory unless its publication “has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”.

Warby J said the defendant’s counsel was right to describe Ms Alexandrou-Theodotou’s evidence on this as “accusatory, tendentious, and emotional”.

He explained: “It is mainly concerned with imputing to the defendant all manner of wrongdoing, in something of a scattergun manner. Most of the statement is assertion, rather than evidence.”

As a result, the evidence did not support her contention that the Facebook post caused serious harm, he said, noting that the evidence did not show how many people understood the post to refer to the claimants.

Further, the evidence indicated that not only was the group of people who knew the claimants represented the Davieses “relatively small” but they had already taken “an adverse view of the claimants’ professional conduct, and no serious damage is likely to have resulted”.

He added that, in any case, the evidence was that clients had left the claimants before the offending publication.

In addition, Highgate Hill was one of eight firms acting in the litigation. “I cannot see any sound basis on which to find that a reasonable reader, knowing the claimants to be one of the leading law firms acting in the Cyprus property litigation, but no more, would identify the second claimant as the firm said to have misconducted itself with regard to Mr Davies,” Warby J said.

“That leaves no basis for concluding that the first claimant was identifiable to any reasonable reader as the individual responsible for such misconduct.”

As a result, he dismissed the rest of the libel action, as well as the claimants’ application to amend the claim and particulars significantly.

“If the claimants wish to make another attempt to pursue a claim for damages for inducing breach of contract, it will have to be done in a fresh action,” Warby J said.

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