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Teen loses damages claim against MLA Frew over Facebook comments

By Nevin Farrell

Published 05/09/2016

Paul Frew said he had been
Paul Frew said he had been "vindicated" by the ruling.

A judge has dismissed a claim for damages brought by a teenage girl against the Chair of Stormont's Justice Committee, DUP Assembly member Paul Frew, following references to her on Facebook in connection with anti-social behaviour in County Antrim.

The girl sought damages from Mr Frew who is a public representative for the area where anti-social behaviour was taking place in Broughshane and Ballymena's Harryville area.

The girl (15)  - who the court ordered cannot be identified in the press - was 14 at the time she was named on Facebook by Mr Frew earlier this year.

She was not present at Ballymena courthouse on Monday morning but her father sat just feet away from Mr Frew who was accompanied by his wife Julie as District Judge Philip Gilpin took over half an hour to read out a 17 page judgment.

The court heard the girl was legally assisted and she was ordered to pay Mr Frew's costs.

The Facebook remarks were made at a time when Mr Frew was involved in attempting to bring anti-social behaviour to an end and he previously told the County Court hearing when he named the girl on Facebook he was not intending to harass her or expose her to scorn or ridicule or breach her privacy.

The 41-year-old said the girl and others were named in the hope people could get in touch with their parents to help stop anti-social behaviour.

He said he had been working with the police and said her name had "cropped up" in the debate about what was happening and with incidents getting more serious when he posted the girl's name to his 1,682 Facebook friends he hoped it might help move the situation forward.

The girl previously told the court she was the victim of a backlash and was subjected to "dirty looks" after being "branded" on Facebook by Mr Frew as having links to a youth gang blamed for a spate of anti-social behaviour.

The girl  previously said that after her name was put on social media she feared walking through Broughshane but she accepted no one had actually challenged her.

The girl said she was scared when she read Facebook comments from people alleging what they would do with people involved in anti-social behaviour.

Comments included taking people to Slemish Mountain to give them beatings or hang them from trees by their boxer shorts.

The girl sought damages from Mr Frew arising out of references made to her on Facebook for breach of the the statutory tort of harassment and for the misuse of private information.

In his judgment, Judge Gilpin said in late 2015 police were aware of concerns residents in Broughshane and Harryville had about gangs of up to 30 children aged between 12-17 being involved in anti-social behaviour including "eggs, stones and ball-bearings" being thrown at properties and Mr Frew was contacted by constituents who were "fearful and frustrated".

Judge Gilpin said the Assembly man sought to engage directly with young people who he thought might be involved including meeting with them to highlight the effects of such behaviour and the potential consequences.

The judge said Facebook posts were made about anti-social behaviour but said it was "unfortunate that the social media evidence put before the court appeared to be less than complete".

Regarding the harassment claim the judge found that the "impugned conduct did not constitute conduct of such seriousness that an actionable remedy could be provided".

He said that some of the comments made by others, not Mr Frew, on Facebook, "while undoubtedly unpleasant and unattractive in nature, were neither targeted at (the plaintiff) not any other individual".

The judge said the comments did not deter the plaintiff from making her presence known to others by engaging in exchanges on Facebook.

Having considered all the evidence the judge said Mr Frew "acted throughout in good faith in making considerable attempts to address the issue of anti-social behaviour" in his constituency.

The judge said he was satisfied Mr Frew had "thought rationally about the impugned posts and had formed the view that to publish them was for the purpose of preventing and detecting crime".

Regarding the claim about misuse of information, Judge Gilpin said an allegation was made that Mr Frew's posts on his Facebook page and on the Broughshane Residents page, amounted to misuse of the girl's private information.

The judge said when the girl went on Facebook about the situation she could not claim to enjoy an expectation of privacy in relation to postings about it.

He also said as the teenager had been present in public areas at the time when incidents were taking place she could not enjoy privacy.

The judge said it was also important to take into account that Mr Frew did not make an allegation against the girl, rather he had repeated an allegation that someone else had made to him, and the politician had afforded the teenager an opportunity to respond to it.

Judge Gilpin said the girl also initiated an exchange with Mr Frew on the 'Messenger' service and her postings "indicated inferred consent given by her to take part in online discussions about anti-social behaviour in the area".

The judge concluded the girl failed to establish liability against Mr Frew and her claim against him was dismissed.

Afterwards Mr Frew said the DUP press office would be putting out a statement.

Asked to comment he only said: "I want to give the press office their place first and then we will see after that."

His wife Julie was present and confirmed she came to court to support her husband.

Later, in a statement issued by the DUP press office, Mr Frew said:  "I feel totally vindicated by today’s verdict. The court case since it begun in March has been an unsettling time, as I was made feel like a criminal for simply standing up for the community I serve.

"I would like to thank all those who supported me during this time, not least my family.

"There had been serious and sinister anti-social behaviour in Broughshane and Harryville for many months. I had been assisting residents in their efforts to get better policing for the area and tackle this scourge.

"People were attacked in their homes, food was smeared over property whilst the elderly folk inside could only watch which was deeply upsetting. I was working with, supporting and assisting police and community workers on a daily basis at the height of the trouble.

"This case arose from my work of standing up for the community. Now that a verdict has been given I will continue to work hard for the people of North Antrim and I will not be deterred from defending the good people of Broughshane and Harryville."

The teenage girl was not present at the court but her father was.

Outside he said he was disappointed although he had "no confidence" in Mr Frew as an MLA for his area he had no comment to make on whether Mr Frew should resign from his position as Chair of the Justice Committee because of the court case.

He said he thought his daughter had been "outstanding" in giving her evidence.

He said: "I'm disappointed with the outcome, I really am, but we will see where we take it from here. I will have to speak with my solicitor and my barrister to see what we do from here.

"There is a mechanism for appeal and I will have to talk it through with them. I'm not ruling it out.

"I am very very disappointed."

Regarding Mr Frew, he added: "I have no confidence in him."

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