The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘vendetta’ as a ‘family blood-feud, usually of a hereditary character… customary among the inhabitants of Corsica and parts of Italy’.
However, the OED also recognises that a vendetta can by extension encompass a ‘similar blood-feud, or prosecution of private revenge, in other communities’. And it seems that local authority officers and members are part of those ‘other communities’.
On 23 July, in Cheshire West and Chester Council & Others v Pickthall  EWHC 2141, Edis J granted an interim injunction against a defendant (Robert Pickthall) preventing harassment of councillors and officers of Cheshire West and Chester Council under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The court described the defendant’s behaviour as an irrational vendetta against the individuals in question pursued with obsessive persistence.
The matter concerned the actions of a prolific complainant against the council and some of its officers and members. In light of his behaviour, the claimants (the council, two officers and two councillors) sought an interim injunction under sections 3 and 3A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
To illustrate the scope of the defendant’s activities, the council’s internal audit team found that between July 2012 and May 2014 more than 2,400 emails, including over 1,000 items of correspondence, were sent directly from the defendant to the council. These stemmed from the defendant’s belief that: (i) the council had not given him proper assistance in a dispute he had with his private landlord; and (ii) allegations of impropriety, including fraud and corruption in respect of the land on which his property stood.
Furthermore, (although the Local Government Ombudsman disagreed) when the council, for administrative convenience, had adopted a ‘single point of contact’ process for the defendant’s communications (whereby all emails were diverted to David Finlay, one of the claimants) the defendant considered this to be unlawful interception of his communications.
The court noted that: ‘[t]he quantity of emails sent to the council… was very substantial. Allegations of criminal and dishonest behaviour were very frequently made against identified individual employees, officers and councillors.’
The defendant was additionally aggrieved that although he had ‘repeatedly provided the chief constable of Cheshire and the Cheshire crime and police commissioner more and more high quality irrefutable evidence proving… [various]… council officers guilty of criminal conspiracy, perverting the course of justice, and misconduct in public office – astonishingly they both refuse to carry out formal investigations into my complaints’ (emphasis added).
After the police declined to investigate [the defendant’s allegations of criminal behaviour] he ‘started to publish his allegations widely’. The defendant also admitted using various email addresses as proxies ‘to hide the true origin of the complaints and to suggest that other people, besides him, were outraged by the matters complained of’.
Under the 1997 act ‘harassment’ includes causing alarm or distress. Under section 1(1) and 1A a person must not (among other things) pursue a course of conduct which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment. By section 1(2) a person whose course of conduct is in question ought to know that it amounts to or involves harassment if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think that it did so.
Section 3A enables application to the High Court for an injunction restraining pursuit of any conduct which amounts to harassment in relation to any person or persons specified in the injunction.
However, there is a defence in section 1(3) if the person pursuing the course of conduct shows that it was pursued (among other things) for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, or ‘that in the particular circumstances the pursuit of the course of conduct was reasonable’.
As to that issue, Lord Sumption (pictured), in Hayes v Willoughby  UKSC 17, indicated that while a wholly objective test is inconsistent with either the language or the purpose of the act, a wholly subjective test is equally problematic. For a ‘large proportion of those engaging in the kind of persistent and deliberate course of targeted oppression with which the act is concerned will in the nature of things be obsessives and cranks, who will commonly believe themselves to be entitled to act as they do’.
The necessary control mechanism is therefore to be found in the concept of rationality, rather than ‘reasonableness’ which is ‘an external, objective standard applied to the outcome of a person’s thoughts or intentions’.
However, as Lord Sumption had indicated, a test of rationality ‘… applies a minimum objective standard to the relevant person’s mental processes. It imports a requirement of good faith, a requirement that there should be some logical connection between the evidence and the ostensible reasons for the decision, and (which will usually amount to the same thing) an absence of arbitrariness, of capriciousness or of reasoning so outrageous in its defiance of logic as to be perverse’.
So: ‘Before an alleged harasser can be said to have had the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, he must have sufficiently applied his mind to the matter. He must have thought rationally about the material suggesting the possibility of criminality and formed the view that the conduct said to constitute harassment was appropriate for the purpose of preventing or detecting it. If he has done these things, then he has the relevant purpose.’
Although the defendant had referred to a ‘raft’ of ‘high-quality irrefutable evidence’, the court found what he adduced to be less than persuasive. Edis J referred to the defendant’s ‘muddled thinking’ and said that the ‘raft of evidence’ now placed before him ‘does not prove any crime by anyone, or even raise any serious possibility that anyone has committed any crime’.
In the circumstances (and to use the language of Hayes) the defendant’s ‘… vendetta against the individuals employed by the council was irrational. His persistence was obsessive. He was no longer guided by any objective assessment of the evidence of an ability to use the link between (1) a defective title to the land and (2) crimes which may be committed by third parties on the land to frustrate the potential criminals. There was no longer any logical connection between his suggested purpose and his acts’.
In the court’s view, the defendant had become obsessed and ‘perhaps even exhilarated by his ability to cause distress by repeating long dead allegations over and over again’. And by ‘accusing each new recipient of corruption if they do not immediately do whatever it is he asks of them, he widens the scope of his campaign to include people who have nothing to do with it’.
As to rational judgment, the defendant had long since ceased to apply any in deciding what to do. For it seemed probable from the evidence that the defendant simply wanted to cause harm and was likely to be succeeding. But although elected politicians and public officials must be subject to proper public scrutiny, this is not unlimited.
They ‘… are not helped in discharging their public functions by having to deal with vitriolic abuse addressed directly to them and published widely to the world at large. This is distressing, as the defendant knows: that is why he does it’.
The court concluded on the evidence that the defendant has no real prospect of establishing that his conduct was justified under the 1997 act.
Many authorities have to endure what Sumption described as a ‘persistent and deliberate course of targeted oppression’ carried out by those who ‘will in the nature of things be obsessives and cranks’.
This case, which applies Hayes in the local authority context, will assist authorities walking the proportionality tightrope between affording proper freedom of expression (under article 10) and safeguarding the legitimate rights of officers and members.