Sex therapist blames Google for stealing rival's clients in £2m court battle
A sex therapist embroiled in a £2m court clash over claims she stole clients from a rival's business by hijacking her online profile has blamed a "quirk of the Google algorithm" for the drama.
Siobhain Crosbie, who charges up to £200 a session for help with issues including "sexual dysfunction" and "transgender difficulties", claims former friend and protégé Caroline Ley stole her clients after the two women fell out in December 2011.
But psychosexual therapist Ms Ley, 51, who studied under Ms Crosbie and worked for a time from her therapy practice, APS Psychotherapy and Counselling, in South Woodford, east London, before leaving to set up her own practice nearby, said it's a problem caused by the way the search engine merges listings.
But Ms Crosbie, 55, claims that subsequently her own business mysteriously nosedived and it was not until 2016 that she discovered online enquires for her counselling service via Google were being diverted to Ms Ley's business.
She claims Ms Ley, a "sex addiction" specialist who charges £100 for an individual 50-minute session, deliberately interfered with the online search tools and profiles in order to poach her clients.
Cyber fraud allegations
She is now suing for £1,422,418.80, plus interest of £456,109, alleging "cyber fraud".
But Ms Ley denies the claims, blaming "a quirk of Google's algorithm" for the "mash-up" of details from the two businesses, due to them both having been run from the same address at one time.
She is also countersuing, demanding "substantial" damages for libel and harassment over what she claims has been a "carpet bombing" campaign by Ms Crosbie to blacken her name on social media.
Gervase De Wilde, for Ms Ley, told Mr Justice Julian Knowles that the two women became friends and later colleagues after meeting on holiday in 2005.
Ms Crosbie was already an established therapist and Ms Ley subsequently undertook a degree in psychology and a placement with Ms Ley as part of her training before renting a counselling space from her in 2010 and 2011 as she established her own practice, he said.
The two women however "parted ways professionally and personally at the end of 2011," he said, with Ms Ley going on to set up her own business nearby, in Buckhurst Hill.
Ms Crosbie told the judge from the witness box that it was shortly after this that she noticed her business beginning to flatline.
She said that, from 2012, she experienced a "drop in enquires" and was told by her clerical supervisor that "the phone hadn't been ringing for three months."
A message was read to the court she sent in 2012, stating: "things are absolutely sh*te financially".
She told the judge that the side of her business involving renting spaces to other therapists was so badly affected she had to cut the number of rooms she was renting out from three to one.
Phone number 'redirection'
Her barrister, Janaka Siriwardena, told the judge: "At some point in March 2016, she discovered that if you clicked onto the phone number on her web listing, this connected to a phone number controlled by Ms Ley.
"Also, clicking on the directions icon led a web visitor to directions to Ms Ley’s (business) address.
"In March 2016, Ms Crosbie complained to Ms Ley that she had deliberately directed potential visitors to her own business and as a result, that Ms Crosbie had suffered a loss.
"Ms Crosbie also discovered that a listing for her business on psychotherapy.co.uk coincidentally again led to Ms Ley’s business.
"Except Ms Crosbie did not consider this to be coincidental, but both acts were carried out deliberately as a means of passing off Ms Ley’s business as being similar or associated with Ms Crosbie.
"Further, logos and photos associated with Ms Crosbie’s listing were found on Ms Ley’s listings.
"It does not appear to be denied that both the address icon and telephone number functioned to lead away any potential visitor away from Ms Crosbie's listing to something controlled by Ms Ley.
"Her explanation for this is Google's 'merged listing' process applied to similar businesses that led to an inadvertent state of affairs which then became contentious.
"Ms Crosbie's case is that the diversion went beyond Google's merged listing process. The state of affairs persisted over a number of years.
"Ms Ley must have been made aware of any error during such a length of time."
In reply, Ms Ley's barrister told the judge: "At some point in March 2016, Ms Crosbie discovered a listing...apparently displaying the address of her business, Ms Ley's phone number and Ms Crosbie's website.
"She complained to Ms Ley unreasonably that this amounted to her having 'taken over her website'."
He dismissed the problem with the online listings as "a quirk of Google's algorithm...both businesses having operated briefly from the same premises".
Ms Crosbie had gone on to complain of "cyber fraud" to the police and embarked on a four-year social media campaign against her rival, the barrister said.
"By 2020, both the extent of Ms Crosbie's campaign of publications and the seriousness of the allegations she was making against Ms Ley had intensified, causing enormous distress anxiety and reputational damage to her," he told the judge.
"Ms Crosbie's campaign of publications is a paradigm case of harassment: it is persistent and deliberate; it is unacceptable and oppressive; it is targeted against Ms Ley and it is calculated to cause and has caused Ms Ley alarm and distress.
"Ms Crosbie carpet bombed the Facebook groups where both their colleagues, peers and students congregated online with repetitions of her allegations.
"It is hard to conceive of any complaint against a former colleague based on a business dispute, no matter how well-founded, could justify the terms in which Ms Crosbie made her allegations of wrongdoing. These encompassed criminality, fraud, dishonesty, tax evasion.
"The court is respectfully asked to dismiss Ms Crosbie's claim as being totally without merit and to grant judgment on Ms Ley's counterclaim, making an award of substantial damages for defamation and harassment and granting an injunction."
He called Ms Crosbie's case of passing off "illogical" and "unsupported by the facts or evidence now before the court".
The judge has now reserved his decision until a later date.