In an extreme case of office politics, a bitter falling out between a husband and wife team and the former manager of their legal practice culminated in an enormously costly four-day High Court hearing in which allegations of covert harassment were made.
The couple, both solicitors, had never got on well with their practice manager and, following a deterioration in their relationship, the latter departed under the terms of a compromise agreement. It was said that subsequent events had been so stress-inducing as to make all the parties ill.
It was common ground that, prior to the compromise agreement, the manager had published material on a website which the couple characterised as ‘viciously abusive and threatening’. For his part, the manager described the material as ‘immature’, ‘childish’ and a ‘wind-up’.
However, the material that formed the basis of the couple’s harassment claim took the form of anonymous emails, texts and letters which they alleged emanated from the manager. The material was said to have caused the couple great personal distress but the manager vehemently denied sending any of it.
The Court found that the manager had acted in breach of the compromise agreement in retaining certain documents after he left the practice. The publications that he had admitted ‘involved behaviour which was offensive and wrong’ and he had shown a lack of insight into the effect of his behaviour on others.
However, in dismissing the harassment claim, the Court noted that, despite the couple’s genuine belief that the anonymised material was sent by the manager, there was no forensic evidence to link him with the same. The manager’s allegation that the couple had sent material to themselves in a bid to frame him was ‘absurd’.
Pointing to the ‘real and personal cost’ to the couple, the Court noted that it would have found harassment proved if satisfied that the manager was responsible for the anonymised material. Whoever had sent the material ‘might have considered it only a joking matter’ but, had harassment been established, the Court would have awarded £10,000 in damages.