Norwich Pharmacal relief has been granted, for a potential libel claim by the applicants, to identify those who had access to and used an anonymous Twitter account.


COLLIER AND OTHERS V BENNETT [2020] EWHC 1884 (QB)


FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The Applicants were high-profile individuals who had taken active positions against the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK. They alleged that they were the subject of defamatory tweets posted by an anonymous Twitter account operating under the name of "Harry Tuttle", using the handle "@arrytuttle" (the "Account"), over a period of several years.

After another Twitter user publicly suggested that the Respondent was the owner of the Account, the Account was deleted from view and its tweeting history was removed. The Respondent admitted to being the account owner, but denied that he wrote or authorised the tweets.

In order to pursue their potential claim for libel and harassment, the Applicants sought a Norwich Pharmacal order (the "Order") to compel the Respondent to disclose deleted tweets, which were posted between March 2018 and July 2019 and which referred to them by name.

KEY LEGAL POINTS

  • Applicants 1 and 2 each had a good arguable case that they were subject to defamatory tweets and that these tweets could cause serious harm to their reputation. There was some evidence of the deleted tweets in Google searches in relation to Applicant 1. Applicant 2's solicitor had provided sworn evidence in relation to the content of the tweets. Applicant 3, however, failed to establish a good arguable case as there was less evidence to suggest that she had been the subject of defamatory tweets.
  • The Order was necessary in the interests of justice as the Applicants were entitled to identify all wrongdoers. The fact that the Respondent had accepted liability did not entitle him to obscure the identity of any additional person who could have had access to the Account.
  • By limiting the disclosure ordered to a specific period of time and subject matter, it would not be onerous for the Respondent to comply.

COMMENTARY

The decision shows that anonymous users of social media platforms can be forced to reveal their identity by way of a Norwich Pharmacal order. It is noteworthy that this application was brought against the account holder themselves, and not against Twitter. The Court noted that it "is likely to be a fruitless exercise" to obtain disclosure from Twitter directly.

But sufficient evidence was needed by the applicant to show that defamatory comments had been published. And, in future, it may assist victims of alleged defamation and harassment to be able to establish the identity of at least one of the users of the relevant account before making a similar application.

Key Contacts

Kate Menin

Kate Menin

Principal Knowledge Lawyer, Dispute Resolution
London, UK

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