English solicitor accused of ‘modern day grave robbing’ succeeds in breach of anti-defamation contract action

England and Wales High Court
England and Wales High Court

An English solicitor who was accused of committing international fraud by a professional photographer has succeeded in a claim for breach of contract against him.

Lance Ranger, the owner and Managing Director of Attendus Trust Company AG, alleged that Charles Pycraft, whose late father’s estate included a trust managed by Attendus, had breached the terms of an undertaking preventing him from making further defamatory statements about him.

The case was heard before Mrs Justice Collins Rice in the High Court of Justice (Queen’s Bench Division). The claimant was represented by Felicity McMahon and the respondent by David Hirst.

Systemic international fraud

Following the death of the defendant’s father in 2013, Attendus began to manage a trust that formed part of the deceased’s estate. The defendant became concerned that there were serious irregularities in the management of the estate, but Attendus declined to engage with him following correspondence after taking the view that he was not a beneficiary of the trust.

The defendant subsequently reported the claimant to regulatory and law enforcement agencies in the UK, Switzerland, and Mauritius, suggesting they should investigate his management of the trust as improper, unprofessional, and unlawful. After none of the bodies he approached agreed to investigate, he instead raised allegations online against Mr Ranger.

The posts made by the defendant described Mr Ranger as “a modern day grave robber” and accused him of crimes including systematic international fraud, theft, money laundering (including drugs money), tax evasion and other dishonesty, using a charitable foundation as a front for this activity.

When the claimant became aware of the defendant’s online activity in 2018, he instructed solicitors to protect his personal and business reputation and prevent harassment. They asked the defendant to remove the material of which they had become aware, and to sign an undertaking about his future behaviour in exchange for the claimant not raising defamation proceedings against him.

The undertakings the defendant signed included an agreement not to publish any further defamatory statements of the same or similar nature to those already made, and to delete all previous publications. It was alleged by the claimant that the defendant had published further statements since the signing of the agreement, including a briefing sent to a US investigative journalist that was later circulated on a listserv, or mailing list, for other journalists as well as a series of defamatory tweets.

It was argued by the defendant that the briefing and listserv did not count as “publishing” in terms of the undertaking and were not of a similar nature to the previous postings it referred to. Alternatively, there were good reasons in law why the undertakings should not be applied so as to lead to a finding that these briefings constitute a breach.

Entirely recognisable material

In her judgment, Justice Collins Rice noted the nature of the dispute was contractual, saying: “It is about a contract to compromise threatened defamation proceedings. It is not disputed that the signed undertakings constitute a binding legal contract which is in principle enforceable as such, or that, as a general principle, there is clear public interest in enforcing agreements to settle live or threatened litigation.”

Analysing whether the correspondence with Ms Komisar, the US journalist, constituted further defamatory statements, she said: “Mr Pycraft’s initial email to Ms Komisar sets out the gist of his allegations against Mr Ranger in terms which are entirely recognisable from the material previously objected to – ‘modern day grave robber’ included. Although the edited version Ms Komisar posted is much toned down, that turn of phrase is retained, as are allegations about defrauding his family and others, and actual or attempted misappropriation of trust funds.”

On whether the material had been “published” in terms of the undertaking, she said: “There is no indication that Mr Pycraft sent his email to anyone other than Ms Komisar in the first instance, but as already noted it is also clear that she was acting at his behest in posting it on the journalists’ listserv. Both actions undoubtedly count as ‘publishing’ by Mr Pycraft as that term is understood in defamation law.”

She continued: “Somewhere on the line between an intimate whisper and a public tweet, a point of sufficiency is reached for even the most informal understanding of the meaning of ‘publish’ in this agreement. In my view that point is reached where material is made available to two hundred investigative journalists on an unconditional basis.”

Turning to the issue of the non-deletion of several defamatory tweets, Justice Collins Rice said: “On the evidence, the balance of probability comes down in favour of a conclusion that Mr Pycraft (and the solicitors) failed to spot that the tweets had not been deleted: their appearance under the later ‘Charlie Pycraft’ username suggests that they remained live rather than reappearing in a pre-March 2018 cached form.”

She continued: “If I am wrong about that, then I accept that the undertakings placed the burden on Mr Pycraft to check for the persistence or re-emergence of deleted material and act on anything discoverable. On any of the factual bases put to me, therefore, it appears to me that the balance comes down in favour of a conclusion that there was probably a breach of the undertakings in this respect.”

For these reasons, Justice Collins Rice considered that the defendant had breached the terms of the undertaking, and he was ordered to pay the claimant’s legal costs as specified in the undertaking. A permanent injunction against Mr Pycraft sought by the claimant in addition to the contractual remedy was not granted.

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021

Other judgments by Justice Collins Rice