A controversial landlord allegedly told staff to kill themselves in an alleged campaign of harassment spanning almost a decade.
Ashford Borough Council, in Kent, is applying to the High Court for a permanent injunction against multi-millionaire landlord Fergus Wilson to bring an end to harassment that it claims has been ongoing since 2011.
The court heard how legitimate inquiries by Mr Wilson would quickly turn to him repeatedly belittling, insulting and abusing councillors or council workers in an attempt to get his own way.
The 72-year-old property mogul has found found himself in the public eye numerous times over the last decade, notably in 2018 for clashing online with comedian Danny Hyde and in 2017 when a court overturned Mr Wilson’s racist practice of banning “coloured” tenants.
Mr Wilson and wife Judith once owned the largest portfolio of properties in Kent – believed to be around 1,000.
In court this week, it was alleged Mr Wilson would send a huge number of letters and emails, and make phone calls and formal complaints against officers, councillors and legal representatives.
The council’s representative Adam Solomon QC said Mr Wilson’s behaviour had made workers feel harassed and intimidated, with some receiving emails from him on a daily basis.
Mr Solomon said: “Officers, employees and councillors felt bullied and distressed, being unable to respond properly to allegations, some of them being reduced to tears.”
Council leader Gerry Clarkson reportedly received a large number of letters to his home address, one of which – amongst a large amount of profanity – told him to “do all of the young people in Ashford a favour and commit suicide”.
A statement from Cllr Clarkson told the court: “I’ve served the public for most of my adult life, and consider myself a robust person, and perhaps a certain degree of unpleasantness is to be expected in a public office.
“But this crossed any reasonable threshold, and has caused a significant amount of distress and alarm; it distressed my wife so much that she had to stop opening the post.
“[Applying for an injunction] is an unusual step for a local authority to take but we have no other option.”
Defending Mr Wilson, his representative Andrew Deakin argued that the communications the landlord sent out “didn’t cross the threshold of what would be considered harassment”.
He also said that councillors “having taken elected office, accepts and takes on the very real potential that individuals will write and express abhorrent expressions” such as Cllr Clarkson experienced at the hands of Mr Wilson.
The court also heard that Mr Wilson subjected one of the council’s legal representatives to a focused ordeal spanning years, much of which featured emails to her superiors, some of which were copied to as many as 44 people within the council.
These would often see him make derogatory references to her weight and general appearance, as well as stating that she was not qualified to practise law.
The landlord even went so far as to say that the legal representative was guilty of ‘misleading the court’ in previous cases, and said that he had laid papers with magistrates for a private prosecution against her for practising law without qualification – although he declined to say which magistrates and when.
He made repeated demands to the victim’s direct superior, as well as councillors including Cllr Clarkson that she either resign or be fired.
He also suggested that she consider taking “the easy way out” to avoid criminal prosecution – something that the claimants said in context was a suggestion to take her own life, rather than the defendant’s assertion that it was suggesting she resign.
Mr Deakin argued that writing to a third party – such as a worker’s superior – about a person (the worker) cannot be harassment to that person.
In support of an argument that his conduct was appropriate, one piece of evidence that Mr Wilson submitted to the court was a photo of himself taken with the hashtag “Fat ****” written underneath, presumably taken from social media, although this was not specified.
Mr Solomon said: “The argument goes, insofar as it is coherent, is that if it is OK for people to call the defendant a ‘fat ****’, it is okay for him to refer to [the victim] in the way that he does”.
The council’s representative went on to say that they argued this was not an appropriate way to write to the court.
Cases from both sides have concluded and a ruling is expected later this week.