A senior judge has condemned the “intimidatory, muscular tactics” used by Mike Ashley’s sportswear company Sports Direct in a failed bid to have Rangers chairman Dave King punished for an alleged breach of a gagging order.
In the latest chapter of a bitter and costly dispute that has embroiled the Ibrox club, lawyers acting for Mr Ashley and his company asked Mr Justice Peter Smith, sitting in the High Court, London, to find Mr King guilty of contempt of court.
They accused Mr King of breaching a confidentiality undertaking contained in an order made by a judge in June 2015.
The breach was alleged to have occurred when Mr King gave an interview to Sky Sports News in July 2015 and revealed the existence of a meeting and discussions relating to commercial contracts between Sports Direct and Rangers.
Dismissing the contempt application as an abuse of process, the judge said the “whole proceedings from first to last were designed to intimidate rather than to seek proper sanctions for an alleged breach”.
The judge said on Friday: “These kind of muscular tactics of using a threat of committal is something which the courts should deplore. “
The company and Mr Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United, had already failed in as bid to persuade the judge that Mr King should be jailed over the issue.
After the latest ruling, the judge ordered Sports Direct International Plc (SDI) to pay Mr King’s legal costs on an indemnity basis - the highest scale possible - “as a mark of my disapproval of the way in which the claim was brought”.
He also ordered an interim payment to be made to Mr King of £70,000 within 14 days.
The judge observed: “It seems to me that SDI regards the committal application as merely another method of enforcing bargains.”
The King-Ashley clash has turned into a legal game of two halves: A further hearing is pending to decide whether Mr King has actually breached a confidentiality undertaking. The judge observed: “There is clearly some animosity between Mr Ashley and Mr King.”
The conflict started when Mr King took over running Rangers and currently centres on the commercial arrangements between the club and Sports Direct and its subsidiaries.
Mr King stated that he had no recollection of whether or not he said the words complained of in the Sky Sports interview.
The judge refused to rule out the possibility that the court might find Mr King had breached the gagging order when the matter is tried next month.
“But even assuming that he did breach the June order as alleged it is inappropriate to police those breaches with the heavy hand of committal proceedings.”