Northern Ireland

Judge rules three were defamed on Facebook

Image caption Messages and information about the firm were posted on Facebook

Damages of £35,000 should be awarded against an unknown person who libelled two company directors and a staff member on Facebook, a judge has ruled.

The High Court judge ruled in Belfast on Wednesday that an unknown person had defamed the three people, whose identities were not revealed.

A case against Facebook Ireland Ltd was dismissed.

The judge said the case was part of a "disturbing" trend.

He warned of the consequences of increasing abuse of social media.

The firm was granted anonymity on the basis that any disclosure would only draw more unwanted public attention.

The court heard that the online campaign of vilification lasted months.

Even though those responsible for posting the comments and images remain unknown, the financial penalty will be enforced should they ever be identified.

Two pseudonyms

Writs were issued by the company, the directors and employee last year after a series of messages and information about them was posted on Facebook.

Although the case against Facebook Ireland Ltd was dismissed, proceedings continued against a second defendant known only by two pseudonyms.

A barrister appearing for the plaintiffs argued that damages should be awarded to compensate for the malicious lies.

He told the court his client was a well-known company

The judge said the defendant was "of course, hiding, behind a mask".

"The courts in Northern Ireland have demonstrated their availability and willingness to protect the interests of those whose legal rights are infringed by the cowardly and faceless perpetrators of this evil," he said.

"However, as this case demonstrates, on procedural issues our legal system in the modern era adopts a robust and realistic approach.

"As a result the defendant's attempts at concealment and harassment have been thwarted."

'Malicious slurs'

He found that libellous postings on Facebook specifically identified at least two of the plaintiffs, while other comments identified them by reference and implication.

"The defendant's statements, which are both words and images, took the form of a series of gratuitous and malicious slurs against the character and reputation of the plaintiffs," he said.

Although the comments were held to have been widely read, debated and discussed, the judge decided publication would have been more widespread in a major newspaper.

He also took into account the length of time the defamatory material appeared online.

"In my view this is properly described as a campaign of vilification and abuse which ebbed and flowed during a period of some few months," he said.

He awarded £20,000 damages to the plaintiff who suffered the most distress and anxiety. The two others were awarded £10,000 and £5,000.

The defendant, if ever identified, must also pay legal costs.

The judge added that the case was part of a "disturbing" growing trend in similar litigation.

"It's indisputable that social networking sites can be a force for good in society, a truly positive and valuable mechanism," he said.

"However, they are becoming increasingly misused as a medium by which to threaten, abuse, harass, intimidate and defame members of society.

"The solution for this grave mischief is far from clear and lies well beyond the powers of this court. Self-regulation or statutory regulation may well be necessary."