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Newzbin barrister struck off for owning site he represented

Fined for not 'fessing up and for Twitter outburst

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A barrister has been struck off and fined after failing to disclose that he was the owner of a copyright-infringing website that he represented during trial - and for posting abusive Twitter messages.

David Harris had represented Newzbin during part of a 2010 High Court hearing into whether the website was liable for copyright infringement by its users. He owned 100 per cent of the shares in the website but failed to disclose the fact.

Eight days into the trial, which Newzbin lost, he was forced to stand down as Newzbin's barrister, according to a report by the Daily Telegraph.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) ruled that David Harris' behaviour in relation to the Newzbin trial in 2010 constituted "professional misconduct". He was "debarred" as a barrister and fined £2,500. BSB regulates barristers in England and Wales in accordance with rules set out in its code of conduct.

Harris also posted messages on Twitter, under the pseudonym 'Geeklawyer', which were "likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute," BSB said.

Harris had used expletives in his Twitter posts and in one case referred to legal representatives for the film studios – which had brought the case against Newzbin – as "slimebags", according to the Telegraph's coverage.

Under BSB's code barristers have "an overriding duty to the Court to act with independence in the interests of justice: he must assist the Court in the administration of justice and must not deceive or knowingly or recklessly mislead the Court."

The code also prohibits barristers from "[engaging] in conduct whether in pursuit of his profession or otherwise which is ... likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute".

Barristers are also banned from taking on cases that would cause them professional embarrassment. This includes cases where they have "reason to believe" they are likely to be called as a witness or for other reasons where they have reason to believe their participation would make it difficult to "maintain professional independence" or threaten to prejudice "the administration of justice".

Likely to have been a witness at his own company's trial

In its ruling BSB said Harris had "engaged in conduct which was likely to diminish public confidence in the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute" by appearing as Newzbin's barrister despite owning 100 per cent of the company. His actions in promoting and participating in Newzbin activities also were "likely" to break that rule, BSB said.

BSB said Harris had reason to believe that he was likely to be a witness in the case "by reason of his connection with Newzbin" and said he would struggle to "maintain professional independence or the administration of justice might be or appear to be prejudiced" through his representation of the site.

Harris also "deceived or knowingly or recklessly misled" the High Court by claiming that his 100 per cent ownership of Newzbin shares was on behalf of someone else and by claiming he did not know whether he had any financial interest in the company, BSB said.

In March 2010 the High Court ruled that Newzbin was liable for copyright infringement of its users. The site charged users 30p per week for access to its indexing and collation of media files posted to discussion groups on the Usenet system. Because Newzbin operators knew about copyright infringement on the site and had made it easier for that infringement to occur, the operators were also liable for that infringement, the Court had ruled.

Newzbin subsequently shut down but 'Newzbin 2' was then set-up and has been the subject of more recent court action. In July last year the Motion Picture Association – representing six major film studios, including Fox and Disney – won a High Court ruling ordering BT to block its customers from accessing the site.

The court made its order under Section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. The Act gives UK courts the power to grant an injunction against an internet service provider if it had 'actual knowledge' that someone had used its service to infringe copyright.

Since the High Court's ruling Sky has joined BT in blocking its customers' access to Newzbin 2.

Copyright © 2012, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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