Mother ordered to pay £95,000 in damages after anonymously defaming her daughter’s headteacher online
'the ruling should reassure schools that the courts will take a robust approach to defamatory comments made by parents, even those posted under a perceived cloak of online anonymity'
A mother who started an online petition calling for the removal of the headteacher of her daughter’s school has recently been ordered to pay damages totalling £95,000, as well as being subject to an injunction preventing her from repeating the claims.
Whilst the award of damages in this case was unusually high due to the severity of the allegations, the ruling should reassure schools that the courts will take a robust approach to defamatory comments made by parents, even those posted under a perceived cloak of online anonymity.
In mid-2013 the parent in question, Pamella Linton, used a pseudonym to mount an online attack on St John’s Preparatory Senior School in Enfield and its headteacher, Calliope Tardios, in the form of a www.change.org petition which claimed that Mrs Tardios had ‘caused immeasurable psychological and mental damage to children at her school’, had ‘misled parents into believing she is a disciplinarian when she is in fact a bully’ and was ‘unfit to work with children or run a school’.
A defamation claim was brought against Ms Linton jointly by Mrs Tardios and St John’s Preparatory Senior School Ltd, the private company which runs the school. On the basis of the school’s excellent reputation (and with no evidence produced by Ms Linton to the contrary), the High Court ruled in August 2015 that the allegations were untrue; it held that they were also defamatory, as any parent who knew of the allegations would have considered Mrs Tardios unfit to run a school and would not wish to entrust their child to her care.
The judge noted that, whilst relatively few people had read the allegations, those who had were on the whole not members of the general public but people with a specific reason to look up the school online – ie people with some form of connection to or interest in it – and that publication to those people was disproportionately harmful.
£70,000 was therefore awarded to Mrs Tardios for injury to feelings. The serious psychological harm she had suffered – both as a result of the initial publication of the petition and of the prolonged litigation necessitated by Ms Linton’s refusal to admit her involvement – was set out in evidence from her colleagues and family, as well as Mrs Tardios’ own testimony.
Ms Linton was also ordered to pay £25,000 to the company for loss of business. The judge noted that the level of new admissions to the school had fallen materially after the petition was published and that at least one parent appeared to have withdrawn their child from the school as a result reading the petition. He concluded that it was likely that some loss of business had been sustained, even though it could not be quantified in monetary terms.
LESSONS FOR SCHOOLS
The recent judgement is positive for schools overall, showing that the courts are waking up to the extent to which both teachers and schools can be damaged by parents airing grievances online – an ever-growing concern for many in the sector.
However, the claim was commenced before the Defamation Act 2013 came into effect at the beginning of 2014; the position for a school bringing a claim now would be slightly different, with claimants having to prove that the publication of the defamatory statement had caused, or was likely to cause, ‘serious harm’ to their reputation. The precise meaning of ‘serious harm’ is still being determined by the courts but it is likely that extensive proof of reputational damage will be required in future cases, particularly when the defamatory comments are subject only to limited publication.
Had this claim been brought under the new Act, a similar award to Mrs Tardios for injury to feelings would have been likely as ‘serious harm’ to her was evidenced. The picture may have been different, however, in relation to the second defendant (the private company). The new Act specifies that, for corporate claimants, ‘serious harm’ means ‘serious financial loss’. The fact that no evidence showing an actual or likely loss of profit was presented may well have prevented the judge from making any award of damages to the company.
A school which finds itself on the receiving end of defamatory comments should start gathering evidence regarding the harm caused as early as possible. Any adverse comments from parents of existing or prospective pupils should be logged, particularly when they result in the withdrawal of a pupil from the school or a decision not to proceed with an application. In addition, clear financial evidence showing any loss in profits must be maintained.
Schools should also consider whether a claim could be brought by an individual, for example the headteacher, rather than the school, as in many cases this will make it easier to prove serious harm. Finally, a school wishing to take legal action to protect its reputation should consider the alternative options available, for example, a claim for malicious falsehood.
20 Oct 2015