Today’s Guest Author is former Hull Daily Mail journalist and Citizens’ Advice Bureau social policy co-ordinator & adviser, STEVE ANDERSON (pictured above), who writes to share his nightmare experiences when East Riding of Yorkshire Council engaged Leeds solicitors Lupton Fawcett LLP to pursue a mystifying and terrifying defamation action against him – for writing a novel in which his fictional characters have names which may (or may not) bear some resemblance to the names of some ‘real world’ individuals, somewhere, somehow, sometime – what?
“So you offered £250,000 to anyone who could demostrate that your fiction somehow defamed them? And no-one took you up on it, you say?”
Even the North Yorks Enquirer raised eyebrows when I furnished a re-written copy of my new novel – “Karma – Where it all went wrong” – praised as “absolutely fabulous” by folk-rock legend Dave Pegg – to prove how my wife and I had been bullied in a vindictive legal challenge launched by East Riding of Yorkshire Council.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” countered NYE’s Nigel Ward. “It sounds more like a plot for your follow-up paperback.”
It does indeed, Nigel, but that would be fiction.
No-one has explained why ERYC’s hired “dispute-management” solicitors ordered me to provide a “substantive response” within three working hours – or face a possible High Court injunction for allegedly defaming staff at a village primary school where my better half, Helen, had worked for almost 30 years.
Not even she had read my still-to-be-published, 120,000-word book when the lawyers’ menacing missive was shoved through my letterbox, in the cover of darkness, one autumn evening.
It now transpires that the correspondence from Leeds law firm Lupton Fawcett LLP (slogan: “Putting you ahead”) was actually “hand-delivered by the local authority solicitor on her way home from work”, the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority confirmed.
Moreover, of course, Councils cannot usually bring claims of libel, as Lupton Fawcwtt LLP (LF) themselves helpfully advise visitors to their own impressive website, but such an unfortunate detail was evidently overlooked while ERYC wasted thousands of pounds of Council Taxpayers’ money preparing litigation against me.
And when the Council, begrudgingly, confirmed that it had dropped the case, it offered not a word of apology or explanation . . . just a few free words of unsolicited advice for me if I planned to use “real” names in any future writing.
But why ERYC, aided and abetted by outside lawyers, decided to adopt such extreme measures to “protect the reputation” of certain employees at Holme-upon-Spalding Moor Primary School remains a mystery. I’d bent over backwards to reassure all parties that I was completely innocent of any such accusations.
Holme-upon-Spalding Moor Primary School
I’d sometimes staggered to bed at 4am after researching and writing yet another pointless rebuttal to Lupton Fawcett official Jonathan Warner-Reed, Council solicitor Lucy Cavell, headteacher Steve Woodhouse and governors’ “chair” Chris Lemming, who sought – again, before anyone but the printers had even read through the manuscript – to censor my work “prior to publication”.
The evangelical Christian told me how a notice had appeared in school – pinned up by Helen at my suggestion – referring to my use in the book of the names of “current and former” members of staff.
“They were hurt and shocked by this action,” he said. “The hurt will remain unless they are given the option as to whether or not their names are used.”
I submitted lengthy excerpts demonstrating that, where “real” names were used, the fictitious characters worked in caring professions perhaps 200 miles away and with no inference of wrongdoing. I offered to read the entire manuscript aloud, but my accusers were having none of it.
East Riding Councillor Julie Abraham, meanwhile, claimed in a multi-copied email that, according to the school, “he has written a book which names members of staff in possibly raunchy situations . . . an unfortunate distraction for this school.”
I’d planned to bring out “Karma” in mid-December 2017, but our whole world was turned upside down when Lupton Fawcett’s threatening letter was “hand-delivered” at 5.30pm on November 29th.
The missive, sent by LF on behalf of its “client”, East Riding of Yorkshire Council, claimed that initial correspondence had been sent two days beforehand.
“We note that we have not received a response,” it said. “We enclose a copy for your ease of reference. Unless we receive a substantive response by noon on the 30 November our client will consider commencing injunction proceedings against you and/or making a claim for damages.
“Our client informs us that you have written a book. Villagers will recognise the names of quite a few of the characters and HoSM School gets the odd mention.
“Our client is concerned that you have defamation at the front of your mind.
“In the acknowledgement you state: ‘A special thank-you to the myriad of people, wittingly or otherwise, whose names I borrowed/stole/modified (delete where applicable) for use by the principal and lesser characters. Notwithstanding the prohibitive cost of ‘libel lawyers’, I do hope they appreciate their 15 minutes of fame!’”
LF then concludes that I’ve committed libel, otherwise why not simply change the names?
“It is almost as if you are expecting something.”
Over the next few weeks, I repeatedly told LF, the school and the Council that I was guilty of libelling no one, but it was all to no avail.
I even contacted the chairman of school governors, stating in my first sentence that “I write to you in desperation that you can intervene”. Not only did he do nothing, but, when I lodged a formal complaint to Mr Lemming’s colleagues, they replied that my “letter did not ask the Chair of Governors to take any action”.
Dismissing the libel accusations as based on hearsay, I pledged £250,000 to anyone I was adjudged to have defamed. ERYC dismissed this gesture the same day.
Notified eventually by Council solicitor Lucy Cavell that “as far as the local authority is concerned, this matter is at an end”, I was angered to read the rest of her email message:
“Should you publish anything further, and wish to use the names of people you know or who could be known to the public, may I respectfully suggest that you approach them to discuss this and obtain their permission first?”
So, when planning my next novel, does ERYC honestly believe that I should contact every ‘Matthew Buckly’, ‘Carolyn Lacy’ and ‘Steven Barnaby’, for instance, so they can decide what I can and cannot call the characters?
Stymied at every move, I then lodged a formal complaint with the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority which, after countless delays, dismissed all my accusations against Lupton Fawcett.
But SRA investigator Philip Saich did reveal the bizarre manner in which the libel threat had been issued:
“LF sent a letter to you by first-class post on 27 November 2017. You did not receive this, which Lupton Fawcett considers regrettable. As it had not received a response, it wrote to you again on 29 November. This was hand-delivered by the local authority solicitor on her way home from work.
“It considers it dealt with you in a reasonable and proportionate way given the concerns raised. It is unfortunate that you did not receive the letter from LF, dated 27 November, until a copy was attached to the subsequent letter. I cannot conclude that the actions of LF took unfair advantage of you or constituted predatory litigation.
“Lupton Fawcett explained that, whilst you offered assurances your book was not defamatory, it could not be certain without having first seen a copy. On 08 January 2018, a governor of the school read the book and assured staff there were no issues.”
I wonder how many other people have been on the receiving end of Lupton Fawcett’s ultimatums. How can such “non-predatory” action be justified by the “independent” body charged with ensuring that “solicitors meet high standards”?
And how, when in Mr Saich’s follow-up email he referred to a completely unconnected law firm in London – “I am very sorry,” he later told me. “Reference to Pemberton Greenish LLP should have read Lupton Fawcett LLP” – is anyone supposed to have faith in such a body that enjoys an annual budget of £80m?
Even more astonishingly, LF states on its web pages that local authorities aren’t able to sue for alleged defamation! It also quotes the “pre-action protocol for defamation cases”, which, it claims, “is intended to encourage exchange of information between parties at an early stage, acting in good faith”.
Mr Warner-Reed warns me:
“Should you intend to continue with circulation/publication, regardless of our client’s concerns, then any injunction proceedings and/or claim for defamation will cost you significantly more than your current financial commitment.
“We reserve the right to bring this letter to the attention of the court on the question of costs should injunction proceedings and/or a claim for defamation be necessary, particularly if you fail to co-operate with us at this stage.”
Lupton Fawcett’s conduct at the behest of ERYC led to bouts of deep depression such as I hadn’t experienced for almost 20 years; they confirmed Helen’s worst fears that I was on the verge of a complete breakdown.
“I don’t know how he’s been able to carry on,” she confided to a close friend. “Steve has been in a very dark place since this threat was issued. There have been many times when he told me he was going for a long walk and I’ve been terrified that he wouldn’t return”.
“We’ve even had police visit the house and one PCSO even warned both of us not to set foot on the school premises again. Needless to say, because I was evidently such a security threat(!), all the passwords were changed immediately”.
“And I’ve now been on extended sick leave for seven months because of the relentless anxiety and stress caused by the school’s and council’s crass assumptions and spite. I’d never experienced mental health issues first hand until seeing the words ‘Lupton’ and ‘Fawcett’.”
Despite my fragile state of mind, I refused to cower, lodging a Freedom of Information request which revealed that ERYC had spent £3,540 on contracting Lupton Fawcett, even though local Councils can’t sue for alleged defamation. Its decision to drop its case against me as soon as my novel had been scrutinised, word by word, begs the question of why on earth it had initiated this action originally.
Absolutely no-one has apologised for their vindictive action. And the Council’s absolute stupidity is continuing. Helen can’t set foot anywhere near the school without suffering from palpitations and chest pains because certain of her colleagues, whom she’d assumed had been her friends, effectively stabbed her in the back by crying ‘libel’ when all they’d had to do was take up our offer to provide proof that ‘Karma’ defamed no-one in the slightest
The headteacher, Steve Woodhouse, repeatedly told Helen that he could refer her case to “occupational health”, but then confirmed last month that the school didn’t even subscribe to such a service.
Since then the situation has deteriorated even more into a mixture of vindictiveness and farce that, ultimately, will result in various individuals being sued for defamation by me, and Helen, who is entirely blameless, seeking compensation through tribunal or court after consulting ACAS.
Summoned to attend a meeting with Mr Woodhouse and a senior Council HR official on June 27, she was informed a week earlier that she could be accompanied by either a trade union representative or one of her work colleagues. Because she’s not in a union and any one of her fellow-employees could have been behind the libel threat, she faced the intimidating prospect of being alone at the hearing until Mr Mick Burchill, the chief-of-staff of Yorkshire and Humber UKIP MEP Jane Collins, volunteered to step in.
Less than a day before the meeting, however, Helen was told by Mr Woodhouse that Mr Burchill would not be allowed to attend, despite having been present at countless similar hearings elsewhere.
This, I believe, was an appalling way to treat an employee whom everyone agrees has done nothing wrong. So much for the 1998 Human Rights Act, which compels organisations such as schools “to treat everyone with fairness, dignity and respect”.
And, as for the much-vaunted “duty of care” to its workforce, there’s no sign that ERYC has cared for anything but its own highly-polished ego.
This Council, aided by its hired ‘dispute-management’ specialists, has replaced fairness and decency with a combination of malice and complete disregard for commonsense. Helen has been told by a reliable source that all her colleagues are under strict instructions from “above” not to have any dealings with us. They seem terrified of daring to ignore such bully-boy tactics enforced by the authority.
Our sleepless nights and depression-laden days are impossible to enumerate. I’ve lost countless sales because I’ve not felt able to promote ‘Karma’. Thousands of hours have been wasted while I’ve been writing letters, researching the options or merely lying in bed contemplating taking my own life. The hurt caused to us is such that, having lived in our home since 1977, we are even considering moving away because a number of individuals associated with the school, who don’t even have the decency to own up to their mistakes, have besmirched our good name.
And as for the governors’ behaviour in all this – maintaining that my “desperate plea for intervention” wasn’t asking for help – I can only recommend that they sit down with a dictionary before holding their heads in collective shame and then resigning en masse, preferably following Mr Lemming to his Holme Christian Fellowship, which aims “to care for one another and serve the community in which we live”.
Amen to that. But I won’t be taking up the Fellowship’s webpage offer “to come and visit us – you’ll be very welcome”.
I gave my accusers countless opportunities to resolve this dispute amicably, which both sides in a case of alleged libel are supposed to do at the earliest opportunity, but ‘crying defamation’ was their very first step.
When Ofsted Inspectors make their next visit to Holme-upon-Spalding Moor Primary School (pictured above) which, four years ago, was described as “inadequate and requires improvement”, I will ensure that they have a detailed report about the way in which these people have behaved without an ounce of proof to back up their falsehoods. The concept of ‘karma’, which features prominently in my book, will probably assume a personal significance way beyond their wildest fears.
“Karma – Where it all went wrong” is available as both a physical and e-book directly from York Publishing Services or from Amazon and other retailers. Dave “Peggy” Pegg, bassist with Jethro Tull for 15 years until he left the folk-rock supergroup to concentrate on his other “duties” with Fairport Convention, was among the first to review the paperback.
“Absolutely fabulous” was his verdict. “Very interesting, indeed. In fact, I couldn’t put it down until I’d read the final page.”