Owls libel case wait

THE owner of an Owls fans' website alleged to have carried libellous statements about the club and its management faces an anxious wait to discover how much information he will be forced to reveal about supporters who posted comments.

Tuesday, 2nd October 2007, 7:22 pm
Updated Wednesday, 3rd October 2007, 10:58 am

The struggling Championship club and its senior management team claim comments published on the owlstalk.co.uk site have been harmful to the club and want to take libel action against the anonymous fans who wrote them.

Their legal team appeared before deputy High Court judge Richard Parkes QC, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London to ask for an order compelling Neil Hargreaves - referred to in court as the site's owner - to reveal the identities of the writers.

But, after telling the court he would make disclosure orders relating to some, if not all, of the 14 postings claimed to be libellous, the judge said he would reserve making a full judgment until a later date.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Aidan Eardley, representing the club and its directors, chairman Dave Allen and chief executive Kaven Walker, told the court of the contents of the allegedly defamatory comments, published online in July and August of this year.

Team manager Brian Laws asked for his name to be removed from the proceedings before the action was brought to court.

The messages, which appeared on the site's bulletin board, suggested the club, currently sitting second from bottom in the Coca-Cola Championship, was being incompetently run.

But the messages were written under anonymous user names, hiding the true identity of the writers. One of them shared their online identity with Coronation Street character Deirdre Rashid.

Mr Eardley said the comments were "arguably" defamatory and had broken the terms and conditions agreed by the users when they signed up for the site.

He asked the judge to order that the identities of the writers be disclosed so legal action could be taken against them.

If only email addresses were available, action would then be taken against the users' internet service providers in order to determine who they were, he added.

He said the comments were especially serious because they had been published on a website aimed at the club's fans.

"My clients cannot stand by and allow defamatory statements to be published to this highly important group of people," he told the court.

Lawyers representing Mr Hargreaves, who says the postings were harmless football banter, said they were taking a "neutral" stance on the disclosure application and would await the decision of the judge.

Sheffield Brightside MP David Blunkett - a lifelong Owls fan - has stepped into the row and urged the dispute to be settled.

Mr Blunkett said: "I do hope that, with appropriate apologies and their acceptance, that this matter might be settled amicably and a positive way forward found. I would certainly be prepared to contribute to this."