The Christopher Backhouse Case

I want to thank everyone who has contacted me about the Christopher Backhouse harassment case I blogged about yesterday. Based on what I’ve been told, the details revealed in the Guardian article – which are bad enough – are just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t say any more in case there are further legal developments.

I saw this reaction from Erica Smith yesterday.

This experience must have been absolutely dreadful for her and I sincerely hope yesterday’s announcement allows her to bring some closure to the matter. Many would have given up given the lack of action from the police, but Erica Smith had the courage to pursue a civil action getting a sub poena that led to the identity of her harasser being revealed.

Some of the people who have contacted me are people involved with DUNE. Although the harassment went on for years, none of them knew anything about the case until very recently. They are all very disturbed that this was going on in their midst for so long.

I am not a lawyer but it remains a mystery to me why Dr Backhouse has not faced a criminal prosecution. This seems to have enabled him to simply walk away from all the trouble he has caused?

I have been told that because the online harassment was anonymous – because Backhouse used proxy servers – the US Police could not pursue the matter. However, now Backhouse’s cover has been blown and the evidence is clear, shouldn’t the matter now be referred to the UK Police for him to be prosecuted there, or even extradicted to the USA to stand trial there?

In England & Wales Some crimes of harassment are dealt with summarily (i.e. by a Magistrates’ Court) which means the maximum custodial sentence on conviction is six months. However, more serious offences can be tried in the High Court and according to the Sentencing Council guidelines much longer sentences are possible for more serious offences. I’m no in favour of sending people to prison unless it’s absolutely necessary, but the harassment alone seems to me to warrant it in this case.

Anyway, my purpose in writing this post was really to point out that however strongly I feel about this there is little I myself can do of a practical nature, except encourage people who have further information on this case to take it to the proper authorities and urge others in similar situations to be inspired by the example of Erica Smith.

Update: some further information clarifying some matters related to this case is available on this Twitter thread

11 Responses to “The Christopher Backhouse Case”

  1. Anonymous UCL member Says:

    My understanding is that the department and group heads at UCL also first found out about it from the Guardian article, and they thought he’d just left to change career.

  2. The Backhouse case is very shocking — thank you for drawing attention to it.

    You wrote : “In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should be acknowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. ”

    Confidentiality is needed during the investigation to prevent suborning of witnesses & protect the interests of accuser and accused, and so on.

    The problem is that confidentiality is extremely useful to University management, who are mainly interested in hushing things up. In fact, “confidentiality” is more often used to cover up wrong-doing in Universities, or to avoid exposure of the failure of the University to act, and so on.

    In my view, there is way, way too much use of “confidentiality of HR processes” in Universities. It has its place, but is overdone.

    You (rightly) praise Dr Erica Smith for starting a civil case to get justice.

    It was very, very brave of her. Of course, she will have had to put up 10,000 £s of her own money to do this. (She has been awarded costs, but it seems Backhouse has not so far paid up — the courts can make him pay, but it requires still more legal action on her part).

    So there is a practical reason why Erica Smith’s brave stand cannot be replicated by everyone. It is an expensive course of action.

    Bullying is not against the law. Criminal cases can only be pursued if the bullying is so extreme that it passes the legal threshold of harassment. In Dr Erica Smith’s case, it would seem to me to be harassment, but IANAL.

    But, many cases of severe bullying are not criminal offences. This leaves only expensive civil action for the victim.

    But, well done Dr Erica Smith. She won. A rare victory.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, there is a difference between harassment and bullying. In England and Wales (and Ireland) there is a relatively clear legal definition of what constitutes harassment, but there is no such definition of bullying.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Thinking on it – do we know that her legal expenses were not paid by him following his loss in court as a matter of routine, and that the quoted compensation is not on top of that? Still not remotely enough, but we might have been making an assumption.

      • The Guardian article says

        “After Smith first issued proceedings in December 2021, the matter was settled this August as Backhouse agreed to pay £49,975 in damages, in addition to Smith’s legal fees. Backhouse was also restrained from further misusing her information or harassing her.

        To this date, Dr Backhouse has not apologised for his conduct and both interim costs orders remain unsatisfied,” said her solicitor.”

        So, we do know that he has not so far reimbursed her (substantial) legal fees, or even apologised.

        He has (it seems) just resigned his URF from UCL and vanished.

        I also see Dr Backhouse did attempt to defend the matter, so he will have his own legal bills to pay. This will be extremely costly for him.

        Peter’s fear that he may not pay is a very real one. Because we do know that Dr Backhouse is an entirely despicable individual.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks Wyn. This is a disgrace alright.

  3. Thinking more about it, the damages will likely be dwarfed by the legal costs, as Dr Erica Smith has had to use US and UK lawyers (as I understand it).

    So, Dr Backhouse is probably facing a total bill that is easily into 6 figures (as well as the loss of his academic career).

    Severe financial penalties for this kind of activity in Academia are entirely warranted. They are more likely to be effective than anything else. There would be a loss less bullying in Academia, if bullies knew they would be selling their houses to pay their bills.

    Anyhow, Dr Erica Smith is a wonderful example of real bravery.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. It will be difficult to make him pay however, especially if he moves abroad.

      • Yes, that grim thought occurred to me.

        The courts can take property or accrued pension monies. But, Dr Backhouse is young. So if he has neither, he could still evade his obligations & leave Dr Erica Smith badly out of pocket.

        Anyhow, Dr Erica Smith is a real superstar.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It should be arrangeable that, if he goes overseas and pays not, then he be seized upon any re-entry into the UK. That would be a genuine incentive to pay.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes, I believe that justice would be better served by a (much) larger sum in compensation than by a jail sentence. The latter might be justice for him, but not for her.

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