ACS:Law – the legal firm behind ‘bullying’ legal letters demanding payment from alleged illegal file sharers – has stopped trading according to media reports.
The firm closed its doors at the end of January, according to reports, along with its ‘illegal file-sharing’ client, pornography licensee MediaCAT.
ACS:Law sent hundreds of letters on behalf of MediaCAT claiming the recipient was guilty of downloading copyrighted music and videos – often pornographic – and demanding payment of hundreds of pounds to avoid legal action.
Which? was contacted by worried consumers protesting their innocence who had received letters. We referred ACS:Law to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and Andrew Crossley – head of ACS:Law – is now being investigated by the SRA’s disciplinary tribunal.
ACS:Law in ‘legal closure’
Andrew Crossley said that he was pulling out of the ‘illegal filesharing’ business due to the negative attention the work was generating for him, his family and the law firm.
The firm’s closure comes a week after Andrew Crossley announced that he would no longer be chasing alleged copyright infringers. The announcement followed ACS:Law pursuing 27 alleged file sharers, then requesting the cases be dropped – a request that may need approval from the judge presiding over the case.
‘I want to tell you that I am not happy,’ Judge Birss said. ‘I’m getting the impression that with every twist and turn since I started looking at these cases, that there is a desire to avoid any judicial scrutiny.’
The case is still on-going, with Judge Birss expected to deliver a judgment today.
Andrew Crossley had insisted that his clients would take individuals to court if they refused to pay the £500 compensation for their alleged actions. It took almost two years to present the first cases, when ACS:Law presented the Patents County Court in December 2010 with eight cases. At the time ACS:Law was seeking default judgments – but administration errors in the paperwork for the cases prompted ACS:Law to request that the cases be dropped.
Next steps for ‘speculative invoicing’
Which? has slammed the mass letter-sending by ACS:Law as ‘speculative invoicing’, claiming that the practice was focused on ‘bullying’ recipients into paying up with the threat of court action.
Critics have questioned whether the practice used by ACS:Law and its evidence based on using an IP address to identify an individual of copyright infringement would survive judicial scrutiny. An IP address is a unique number issued by ISPs to computers and wi-fi routers that connect to the internet.
Which? has questioned the robustness of using IP addresses to accuse account holders of downloading copyrighted material.
Deborah Prince, Which?’s head of in-house legal, maintains that IP-based evidence is untested, may be unreliable and does not prove that internet connection owner is guilty of illegal file sharing. Mistakes can be made by ISPs in matching a dynamic IP address with the broadband account holder at a given time, and open wi-fi networks can let third parties hijack a network without either the knowledge or permission of the account holder.
‘I don’t think the law as it stands would find an account holder liable for another person’s unauthorised actions,’ she argues. ‘If a judge confirmed that this is, indeed, the case, this would probably lead to the end of these types of claims as the extra work that would be needed to find reliable evidence of illegal filesharing, as well as the additional cost, would probably put rights’ holders off,’ she says.
Accused ‘could get money back’
The closure of ACS:Law could open the door for those who’ve received letters from ACS:Law to get their money back.
Deborah Prince believes they could stand a chance – albeit a small one. ‘The judgment in this case will be eagerly awaited,’ she said. ‘Depending on what Judge Colin Birss says, there may be a potential claim against ACS:Law’s clients. But it is far from clear at the moment whether or not this will be the case – if consumers entered into the settlement willingly they may not be able to claim money back.
‘Also, if the rights holder is no longer trading or has gone bust they are not likely to get any money.’
Mark McLaren, Which? principal advocate, agrees: ‘ACS:Law may have gone out of business, but the consequences of its actions continue to reverberate for many consumers we believe have been unfairly accused.
He explained that Andrew Crossley has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, and ACS:Law is being investigated by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) for breaches of the Data Protection Act.
‘If the firm is fined by the ICO or successfully sued by aggrieved consumers, it’s possible the costs would have to be covered by his Professional Indemnity Insurance,’ he said.
Mark said that until Judge Birss delivers his judgment, which could have implications for the future of file-sharing litigation, he would urge those who’ve received letters such as those from ACS:Law to sit tight and await the judge’s judgment.
‘We hope the judgment will clarify the law so that consumers will never, ever have to worry about receiving a letter out of blue, demanding money for something that they didn’t do, but feeling pressured to pay up just to avoid the threat of a court case.’
He added: ‘From later this year, Ofcom is expected to implement a new system to tackle online file sharing through the provisions of the Digital Economy Act 2010.
‘But unless the law is clarified by Judge Birss, there’s no obligation on copyright holders to use the new DEA process, known as the graduated response, so consumers could still be in the unfortunate position where law firms continue to send out enforcement letters on behalf of copyright owners.’
If you received a letter from ACS:Law demanding payment, read our free guide on what to do if you’re accused of file sharing
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