Costly copyright breach after law firm spots plagiarised correspondence

Nick McAleenan

Law firm JMW Solicitors exacted a £45,000 damages payout from a competitor after it spotted it had copied and used JMW’s correspondence for its own clients.

Nick McAleenan, a partner at JMW, which has offices in Manchester, Liverpool and London, spotted the plagiarism when he was sent a letter of claim issued by Widnes-based law firm Hayes Connor.

He began action after recognising the letter as one he and his colleague Laura Wilkinson had drafted themselves.

Hayes Connor, which was set up in 2017 by Kingsley Hayes and markets itself as ‘The Data Breach Experts’, initially denied having breached copyright.

However, after JMW issued legal proceedings, it backed down and documents submitted to the court revealed it had presented the letter in question as its own work on more than 200 occasions.

Mr McAleenan described what had happened as “a quite remarkable set of circumstances”.

He said: “Clearly, if somebody copies your work, you could take the view that it’s a back-handed compliment for the quality of the work which JMW does.

“After all, it’s highly unusual to find yourself staring at correspondence sent by another law firm which inexplicably contains passages copied verbatim from a document which you had written yourself.

“In the case which Hayes Connor pleaded, they had blamed a barrister with whom they’d worked.

“However, we maintained in our claim that Hayes Connor was aware that the document he provided them with was not based on his own work.

“The actual scale of the infringement was simply staggering and rather disappointing. In a nutshell, they had made a business out of breaching our copyright.

“Sadly, imitation, in this instance, isn’t the sincerest form of flattery. It’s simply a breach of copyright.”

Mr McAleenan, who heads JMW’s media, data rights and reputation management team, is regarded by his professional peers as being among the UK’s authorities on data law.

As well as representing a number of celebrities, entrepreneurs and professional sportsmen and women, he acted for 9,000 individuals following a massive data breach involving a former employee of the Morrisons supermarket chain.

He outlined how the matter came to light in 2019 when JMW – a full-service practice which is among the UK’s 100 biggest law firms – received the offending letter of claim.

Philip Partington, the head of JMW’s intellectual property team, then issued a claim for flagrant copyright infringement against Hayes Connor and others.

Last month, before the matter came to trial, Hayes Connor acknowledged having reproduced a substantial part of the letter drafted by Mr McAleenan and Ms Wilkinson and using it without JMW’s permission.

In court documents, Kingsley Hayes acknowledged that Hayes Connor initially claimed that it had used the letter as its own in 50 cases, although that number then rose to around 150. It emerged that the letter had actually been sent out on 242 separate occasions.

In addition to the damages payment, Hayes Connor has agreed to pay JMW’s costs involved in bringing the legal claim.

A separate settlement had already been agreed with the barrister involved in the affair.

A statement from Hayes Connor said: “We instructed a barrister who, unbeknown to us, copied sections of a precedent which were then used by us in letters of claim. We had no knowledge he had done this and two other firms also used the same material.

“Although we had no knowledge of his actions, we have had to accept liability and have reached a settlement with JMW.

“We will now be pursuing our own action against the individual concerned.”

The statement added: “We instructed the barrister concerned in good faith and we obviously don’t condone his actions. It is no reflection on how we operate as a business and the standards our own people adhere to every day.”