Gentoo Group Ltd and Peter Walls v Hanratty  EWHC 2328 (QB) is the latest case in the unfortunate saga which comes from the LSVT of Sunderland’s entire housing stock to Sunderland HA, now known as Gentoo. When Gentoo took the housing stock, they did so in the knowledge that it was in substantial need of re-development and the price paid for the stock reflected that. Subsequently, Gentoo engaged in a much wider programme of housing and urban renewal than had previously been planned but the renewal has potentially left Sunderland with a social housing stock deficit because of the number of homelessness applications and more general demand for social housing (Sunderland accepted 418 households as statutorily homeless in 2007/08; and until 2005 at least CLG stats show that there were around 16,000 households on the waiting list, although by 2007 this fell to 1799). Additionally, around the time of the transfer, Sunderland were one of the pioneers of choice-based lettings. Some locals – tenants and owners – have not been particularly happy about Gentoo’s management of the process. A BBC report can be accessed here. A December 2005 Audit Commission inspection, by contrast, was positive about the improvements to the stock, and potential for further improvements (access and customer care, as well as its capital programmes were said to be strengths, at paras 27 & 60).
Now, the case: it is the latest in a line of cases in which Gentoo and their CE (who also transferred from the council) are seeking damages and an injunction against Mr Hanratty (and others, but they had compromised a settlement of damages) for defamation and harassment. Over a few years, it is alleged that Mr Hanratty contributed to a website, Dadsplace and its associated chatroom, which has given rise to the claim. Mr Justice Eady earlier exercised his discretion to disapply the statutory limitation period in respect of such claims broadly because it now appeared that Mr Hanratty, who had previously denied all responsibility (and had his costs paid by Gentoo), may have been at least partly responsible (judgment here). Mr Justice Eady noted that “It has proved difficult, time-consuming and expensive for the Claimants to pin down responsibility for the relevant activities, which were carried on anonymously over a period of approximately two years between the summer of 2004 and the summer of 2006.”(para 3). Hanratty was represented at that hearing. This new judgment concerns an application by the Claimants to dispense with jury trial. They are represented by a QC and a junior (as they were at the earlier hearing). Mr Hanratty is now representing himself. Mr Justice Eady accepted the Claimant’s submission, given the nature and scale of the evidence, as well as the fact that Mr Hanratty is representing himself and could be assisted by the judge in shaping his case, and that a reasoned judgment would assist in formulating grounds for appeal. The trial is listed for 5-8 days.
And here’s the rub. The Claimants are unlikely to see any cash from this application; there apparently haven’t been any website allegations for a while; and the evidence against Mr Hanratty is circumstantial at this stage; so what’s the point? I can readily understand why the organisation and its CE would wish to defend their reputation and halt wrongful publications, of course, but is this the best way to do it?