There can be few things more wounding or worrying than to be on the receiving end of a poison-pen letter campaign. However, as a High Court ruling showed, the law provides an effective means by which victims of such behaviour can achieve both public vindication and appropriate compensation.
In the background to the case was a history of friction and grievance between a rural landowner and a couple who were his longstanding tenant farmers. He held the tenants responsible for originating and circulating some anonymous poison-pen letters which surfaced over a two-year period in the village where he lived, and which made grave and salacious allegations against him.
After he launched harassment and libel proceedings, the tenants vigorously denied that the letters originated with them. They contended that the anonymous material came to them from somewhere else and that they gave it little or no further currency. Whilst not conceding the claim, they chose not to formally acknowledge or defend it on the basis that they wished for the stressful litigation to be brought to an end.
Following a hearing, the Court found that, as no formally pleaded defence had been filed, the landowner was entitled to a default judgment on his claim. There was no basis for inferring that the defamatory allegations made against him in the letters were, or were claimed to be, true. In order to vindicate his reputation, the tenants were ordered to pay him £8,000 in libel damages and £12,000 in harassment damages.
An injunction was issued against them with a view to restraining further publication of the same or similar allegations. Their daughter, who was alleged to have been involved in the publication of one letter, was ordered to pay £2,000 in libel damages. She too denied the allegation but had not formally defended the claim.