The recent case of Hayes v Willoughby  UKSC 17, provided that a person accused of harassment must act “rationally” in order to rely on the defence under s1(3) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the “Act”) that “their course of conduct was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting a crime”.
Michael Willoughby was employed by Timothy Hayes and had accused him of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. Willoughby contacted the Official Receiver (to whom there were over 400 communications from him), the police and the Department of Trade and Industry – each investigated but found nothing. The campaign continued into Mr Hayes’ private life, including obtaining personal information from his ex-wife about his mental and emotional ill-health and passing this information to third parties. Willoughby also telephoned Hayes’ landlord the day before he went bankrupt to inform him about that and approached Hayes’ GP suggesting he had forged his signature on sick notes to get out of attending court proceedings. This behaviour was considered sufficient to cause alarm, distress and anxiety to Mr Hayes and was therefore a course of “harassment” as defined under the Act.
At trial the judge found Willoughby’s genuine belief in his allegations that Hayes had committed a crime satisfied the defence provided by the Act. The Court of Appeal overturned that as they considered the conduct was not “reasonably” or “rationally” connected to the prevention of crime. To be a valid defence, crime prevention has to be the sole purpose of the alleged harasser yet it was clear that the relationship between the two men was so poor that Hayes’ behaviour had become a personal vendetta. The Supreme Court dismissed a further appeal, adjudging that the correct test was not wholly subjective nor did reasonableness fit the defence under the Act. The correct test was rationality and Willoughby’s conduct was irrational.
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