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A good friend of many years, but with whom I fell out two years ago, meticulously misled me via multiple emails purporting to come from a member of her family, that she had died. Not only died, but committed suicide 2 days after last contacting me by email.

I was very distressed, and announced the death not only on Facebook, with a long and compassionate eulogy, including a photo of her and I, but also personally to multiple people that she once knew in our town (she left about 3 years ago).

Some of the later mails went on to impart a portion of responsibility to me for the apparent suicide, fictitiously citing her mother and step father. This increased my distress then, and my anger now, further.

I consider this kind of hoax to be in more than bad taste, and indeed, punishable, as she has not only humiliated me, and the several people who called me, but because of the public post, made me look socially awkward, stupid. She also put many people through a lot of sadness for the 24 hour duration of her hoax.

Has she broken UK law? What recourse do I have to ensure she doesn't do things like this again? She has a history of bad behaviour (though this takes the cake).

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    This is probably more suited to Interpersonal Skills.
    – user35069
    Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 10:25
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    @Rick "This is probably more suited to Interpersonal Skills." Not at all. A question of whether the legislation addresses certain types of situations is about the law, not about interpersonal skills. Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 11:29

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If you had suffered some form of physical or mental harm (beyond mere distress), you could have a cause of action (a claim) under the tort of intentional infliction of mental shock per Wilkinson v Downton [1897] 2 QBD7s3 57. You don't say that you suffered any form of physical or mental reaction upon learning she allegedly committed suicide, so if you did not the claim must fail.

She may, however, be liable for sending a malicious communication contrary to Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988. This requires that:

  1. A person must send a letter, electronic communication, or article of any description to another person.
  2. The communication must either convey a message that is indecent or grossly offensive, or a threat, or information which is false and known or believed by the sender to be false, or must (in whole or part) be of an indecent or grossly offensive nature.
  3. The sender's intent (or one of their intents) is that the communication will cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or anyone else intended to receive or be made aware of the contents.

In this case, your friend sent an email to you. This satisfies the first criterion, being an electronic communication.

The communication told you that she had killed herself. This was information which was false and known or believed by the sender to be false.

She intended to cause you distress or anxiety by virtue of sending such a distressing series of emails. The intent can be imputed from her behaviour.

Therefore, on the facts, she would likely be liable for such an offence. You may wish to report this to your local police. She is unlikely to end up in court over the matter, but will probably be issued with a caution or a formal warning which will go on her criminal record. That is about as much punishment from the state that you can expect.

The only other punishment lies in your hands, in the form of social shaming. You could write a follow-up post stating that she had misled you and so on. I am sure your social standing will not have taken much of a hit as you think with your friends: they are likely to be understanding and rally around you once the whole matter is exposed as a hoax, of which you were an unsuspecting victim.

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  • Can I convince you to write "This satisfies the first criterion"? I.e. "This criterion is..." or "These criteria are..." Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 19:51
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    Sure @MichaelHardy - I've corrected my answer. :)
    – Matthew
    Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 19:58
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Has she broken UK law?

You might have only a claim of harassment because of the multiplicity of acts (i.e., emails) with which your former friend made the hoax.

Pseudocide or faked death is in and of itself not unlawful, and your description does not reflect that she obtained or sought to obtain something of value. Likewise, your scenario seemingly falls short of a tort of intentional infliction of mental shock. In addition to having to proof severity of distress, it is noteworthy (from an article regarding data privacy) that "compensation awards for emotional distress are typically low value and may not provide sufficient incentive to bring such a claim".

Nor is online impersonation of lay people (such as a family member) for purposes of that hoax a crime under UK law.

The impersonated member of her family might have a claim of defamation if the wording of the emails injure or tend to injure that relative's reputation. Similarly if the emails contain defamatory falsehoods regarding someone else.

However, the fact that you published information [on which you relied] would defeat your claim of defamation as for her hoax making you "look socially awkward, stupid".

Since there is no judicial recourse for preventing her from doing this again, your best option is to clarify to your audience that this was all a prank of hers. Besides helping to restore your reputation, your clarification will warn others not to blindly rely on other misrepresentations she might make or has made.

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    Thank you. Perhaps I should have made clear that I'm not interested in financial compensation, only to disincentivize her from doing anything like this again, and yes, to exact some form of punishment. Anyway your answer is clear. I shall leave it for a few more days before awarding the answer. Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 14:02
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There are consequences other than legal ones

Or, "freedom of speech isn't freedom from consequences".

Generally, the consequences for such an act are social. This person stands to take a massive social reputation "hit".

Your best bet is to carefully review your state's (e.g. England vs Scotland) laws relating to defamation, libel and slander. Because if you're going to talk about your experience, you need to have a clear and accurate understanding of the related laws under which you might be charged or sued, so you can make sure such suits will fail.

And review the fixed-media documentation you have of the prank. (don't destroy anything obviously). Including things like email headers. Anything held in the hands of a third party (like Facebook or Yahoo Mail) is good. Because I suspect in your jurisdiction, truth is an absolute defense against defamation. If you can prove it, you can't be successfully sued for saying it.

However, you too are affected by social consequences. Thus, you need to be prudent and careful about what you say and how you say it, so you don't hurt your own reputation. Say the right things the right way, and the faker looks like mud, and will not be trusted again by the people you talk to. Say the wrong things the wrong way, and you look like an obsessed fool and liar.

Yes, it's complicated. This is why humans evolved big brains.

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