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Mitton & Ors v Benefield & Anor, High Court, 1 August 2011

18 August 2011
The issues

Harassment – Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The facts

The Claimant lived at number 9 High Ridge, an estate near Ashford, Kent. It was a cul de sac containing a dozen properties. Directly opposite was number 2, where the Defendants and their children lived. The Claimants and Defendants moved in in the autumn of 2003, met each other and for a while became friends. Unfortunately the friendship broke down.

Both the Claimants sued under the Protection from Harassment Act and the Defendants Counterclaimed under the same legislation. The Claimant, who in the view of the Judge had become obsessed with his neighbours, equipped his house with at least four cameras. He produced in evidence a disk allegedly showing Mr Benefield following him in the company of a young Russian student on bicycles in a manner which Mr Wilding-Mitton (as he chose to be called) claimed was clearly intended to cause alarm and distress. He produced another DVD of Mr Benefield loitering at the back of his house for 30 minutes. He took the view that Mr and Mrs Benefield had a planned campaign to destroy Mr Wilding-Mitton and his family and that Mr Benefield was “a platinum smirker who had a moronic stare”.

The decision

The Judge found that the actions of the Benefields could not be categorised as harassment and that the complaints made by the Claimants had been grossly exaggerated. On the other hand, the behaviour of Mr Wilding-Mitton was of a different order. Mr Wilding-Mitton had distributed a letter to the neighbours accusing the Benefields of cowardly and malicious behaviour and of bullying the Wilding-Mitton’s children; he made a number of calls to the police complaining about the Benefields; Mr Wilding-Mitton had pursued a campaign of harassment against the Benefields. It could be put in three categories. First there were the incidents in which Mr Wilding-Mitton was directly involved, such as the incident on the 6th August when Mr Wilding-Mitton abused Mr Benefield, swearing at him and banging on the Benefield’s front door, and when the upshot was that Mr Wilding-Mitton was arrested by the police; second, the false allegations made to the neighbours; and thirdly, the persistent pressure on the police by way of false allegations with demands for action. It was clear that the actions of Mr Wilding-Mitton fell within the definition of harassment in the Act. To constitute harassment, the line had to be crossed so that proper categorisation was criminal. That line was clearly crossed.

On the evidence, it could not be said that Mr Wilding-Mitton was or thought he was pursuing a reasonable course of conduct or one to deter crime. He was pursuing a course of conduct because he was obsessed with the Benefields. As a result of the conduct Mr Benefield relocated, moving his job out of London and beginning to work for South Eastern Railways in Ramsgate and then for Hitachi in Ashford. This change of location was a direct consequence of the harassment by Mr Wilding-Mitton. The Master would be asked to assess these damages by way of damages in respect of loss of earnings, and other expenses; in respect of general damages, the Court was conscious of the guidance given in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, and in respect of the Benefield’s general anxiety, the sum of £7,000 would be awarded to each of them.

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