Parent who harassed head teacher fails in appeal against court orders prohibiting further abuse



A parent who challenged court orders which were imposed upon him after he subjected a retired head teacher to a 10-year campaign of harassment has had his appeal dismissed.

The Sheriff Appeal Court upheld the interdicts and non-harassment orders imposed after rejecting the appellant’s claim that they subjected him to the “same prohibitions at the same time”.

‘An unfortunate case’

Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull heard that Geraldine McWilliams was granted a three-year interdict with the power of arrest to prohibit Richard Russell from making or publishing false or defamatory statements about her, and a three-year non-harassment order to prevent him contacting her, after she had contacted the local social work department to make a child protection referral in relation to his children.

Mrs McWilliams was also granted a non-harassment order prohibiting Mr Russell from publishing or distributing material calculated to cause alarm and distress to her for a period of three years, and a further decree interdicting him from molesting her by verbally abusing her, threatening her, or placing her in a state of fear or alarm or distress, with the power of arrest for three years.

However, the father-of-three appealed against the sheriff’s decision in what the Sheriff Principal described as the latest development in a “most unfortunate case”.

Glasgow Sheriff Court had heard that in 2006 Mrs McWilliams made a child protection referral to social services in connection with Mr Russell’s three children, when she was a primary school head teacher, as she was “duty bound” to do in terms of Glasgow City Council policy.

She claimed the appellant then made a number of unfounded allegations about her, including child abuse, and caused disturbances at the school.

Court orders

An interim interdict was granted in 2006 but the appellant continued to harass and abuse the respondent, who sought further orders because she feared he would continue to harass and bully her “until the day that she died”.

The court was told that in 2008, Mr Russell was convicted of a breach of the peace and fined after sending Mrs McWilliams a threatening letter and an incident in the school playground.

The respondent had to move schools to escape the appellant’s conduct, but her new employers received an anonymous complaint alleging that she was a “child molester” and she said knew immediately that the allegation was made by the appellant.

The appellant, who was found in contempt of court for breaching the terms of the interim interdict granted in 2006, denied making any defamatory statements of the respondent, and denied that he intended to harass, molest or abuse her, claiming that his intention was to “defend his family and to ascertain the truth”, and to “prevent crime”.

Mr Russell, who was also declared a vexatious litigant in 2012, also accused Mrs McWilliams of harassing him; of committing perjury; of following him, writing to him, making inappropriate advances to him; of abusing the power of arrest previously attached to the interim interdict; of continuing to harass him in court during the proof; of fabricating the contents of the referral form.

However, the sheriff granted the orders after ruling that they were “necessary” to protect the respondent from the risk of abuse and to protect her reputation and rights.

But in the latest chapter in a litigation which had as its origin an incident which took place 12 years ago, Mr Russell appealed to the Sheriff Appeal Court.

Firstly, the appellant argued that the interdicts and non-harassment orders made by the sheriff subjected him to the same prohibitions at the same time, which was not competent standing the terms of section 8(5) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, but the appeal sheriff upheld the sheriff’s decision.

Sheriff was correct

Delivering the opinion of the court, Sheriff Principal Turnbull said: “Interdict 1 prohibits the appellant from making, publishing or distributing by any means, false or defamatory statements about the respondent. NHO 2 prohibits the appellant from publishing or distributing by any means material calculated to cause alarm and distress to the respondent.

“The interdict prohibits the making, publishing or distributing of false or defamatory statements. The non-harassment order is directed towards material calculated to cause alarm and distress to the respondent. That is a different prohibition to the one imposed by the interdict. For example, the non-harassment order prohibits the publication or distribution of material which is neither false nor defamatory, yet is calculated to cause alarm and distress to the respondent. I am satisfied that the sheriff was correct to hold that Interdict 1 does not subject the appellant to the same prohibitions as NHO 2.”

He added: “Interdict 2 prohibits the appellant from molesting the respondent by abusing her verbally, by threatening her, by placing her in a state of fear or alarm or distress. NHO 1 prohibits the appellant from approaching the respondent or writing to the respondent or telephoning her for a period of three years. It clear that, when one carefully considers the terms of the interdict and non-harassment order in question, they are designed to address different types of behaviour.

“The interdict prohibits threatening or abusive behaviour. The non-harassment order prohibits contact, whether in person or by telephone or in writing. There can be contact which is neither threatening nor abusive. Standing the history of this matter, one can readily understand that respondent’s antipathy to any form of contact with the appellant, irrespective of his behaviour. I am satisfied that the sheriff was correct to hold that Interdict 2 does not subject the appellant to the same prohibitions as NHO 1.”

‘Fair hearing’

Secondly, the appellant argued that the sheriff’s decision on the final day of the proof to allow the hearing to proceed and hear submissions from the respondent’s solicitor in the absence of the appellant, after he had been taken to hospital the previous day complaining of chest pains - although he failed to provide a medical certificate saying he was unfit to attend court - was “oppressive and contravened his right to a fair hearing” under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The sheriff considered that the appellant was seeking to obstruct proceedings and had chosen to absent himself, and the appeal sheriff held that that was a conclusion she was “entitled” to reach.

He said: “The appellant’s decision to absent himself was a matter of his own choosing. He was not deprived of a hearing, he chose not to attend. The appellant’s appeal, insofar as directed to the sheriff’s decision to hear submissions from the respondent’s solicitor in the absence of the appellant, and her reaching a decision in the absence of submissions from the appellant, was not oppressive and did not contravene the appellant’s rights under Article 6.”

However, a third appeal point which challenged that part of a court interlocutor of 22 May 2014 which ordered that the hearing and trying of the appellant’s counterclaim was to follow the conclusion of the principal action and then only with leave of a judge sitting in the Outer House on the Bills of the Court of Session, was upheld.

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2018