In the recent case of Iqbal v Dean Manson Solicitors, the Court of Appeal found that a course of conduct, looked at as a whole, could arguably be considered to be harassment for the purposes of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, even if each instance taken on its own could not reasonably be considered to be harassment. This case involves an attack on a man's personal and professional integrity, contained within a series of three letters.
Mr Iqbal had worked part-time as an assistant solicitor for Dean Manson Solicitors, during which time he worked on a file for the firm's clients, Mr and Mrs Tahir. The Tahir's legal fees were guaranteed by a Mr Butt. Dean Manson later issued proceedings against Mr Butt under the alleged guarantee and against the Tahirs. By this time, Mr Iqbal had left Dean Manson and had set up his own firm of solicitors. Mr Butt instructed Mr Iqbal to act for him in these proceedings. In this context, Dean Manson sent a series of letters to Mr Iqbal questioning his professional and personal integrity, raising the circumstances of his departure from the firm, accusing him of launching a personal vendetta against the firm and pressuring him into a certain course of action. Two of the letters were copied to the county court despite pertaining to issues which were not relevant to the claim.
Mr Iqbal then made a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 against Dean Manson, who subsequently served a defence in which they made further allegations against Mr Iqbal of bigamy and forging a statement of truth. Mr Iqbal's claim was struck out on the basis that whilst the third letter was arguably capable of being described as harassing, this did not form a course of conduct and, in any event, a partnership could not be a "person" within the meaning of the Act. Mr Iqbal appealed.
The Court of Appeal found in Mr Iqbal's favour and held the following:
- The three letters were each capable of being described as harassment. However, even if each one on its own was not harassment, the three taken together could be described as a course of conduct which amounts to harassment. The letters amounted to an attack on Mr Iqbal's professional and personal integrity in an attempt to pressurise him, by his exposure to his client, the court, or both, into declining to act for Mr Butt or advising Mr Butt to meet Dean Manson's demands. They were arguably capable of causing alarm or distress and were arguably unreasonable or genuinely offensive and unacceptable. The letters went way beyond an attempt to improve their position in litigation.
- Furthermore, Mr Iqbal was entitled to refer to the defence as throwing evidential light on the proper understanding, interpretation and assessment of the letters, despite the fact that the defence post-dated the claim form.
- Lord Justice Rix held that, "a professional man's integrity is the lifeblood of his vocation. If it is deliberately and wrongly attacked, whether out of personal self-interest or malice, a potential claim lies under the Act".
- There was no reason why "person" under the Act should not be given its natural meaning and a partnership could, therefore, be a defendant to a civil action under that section.