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And the industry lobbying campaign against libel cost reform plans is led by… the BCA’s lawyers, Collyer Bristow. But who are “Lawyers for Media Standards”?

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Who’s for a flashmob?

Earlier this month, Justice Secretary Jack Straw confirmed plans to tackle the notoriously high costs of defending a UK libel case by slashing the “success fees” that law firms can charge when prosecuting an alleged libel on a no win, no fee basis.

The Press Gazette yesterday reported that, in response:

A newly formed group, Lawyers for Media Standards, is threatening to seek judicial review over Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s plan to cut the maximum success fee which lawyers working on Conditional Fee Agreements cases can charge.

The group has demanded that Straw drops his plan to reduce success fees by ninety per cent in so-called no-win, no-fee cases and re-open the consultation which preceded his announcement.

Lawyers for Media Standards outlined the threat in a letter sent to Straw, earlier this month, by law firm Collyer Bristow.

It’s worth noting at this point that defending a UK libel case currently costs 140-times the European average, and that as a result defendants who lack the financial means to cover these costs are effectively denied their right to a fair trial.

The one case above all that has galvanised public opinion on this issue is that of  Simon Singh, the author being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over criticisms he made about their scientific claims.  Where many would backed down long ago, Simon Singh has refused to retract his comments because he believes them to be fair and true, and has already paid an enormous price as a result.

And it just so happens that Collyer Bristow, the law firm heading the libel industry’s counter-attack against efforts to reign in their exorbitant fees, is the self-same law firm that is representing the British Chiropractic Association in their controversial and much criticised case against Simon Singh.

But what else do we know about “Lawyers for Media Standards” (LMS)? Well, the naming convention certainly seems familiar to anyone who’s looked into the murkier dealings of the PR industry (remember “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth”, and “Citizens for a Free Kuwait”?).

According to Collyer Bristow, LMS is “an incorporated body whose members include a number of lawyers who represent both claimants and defendants in defamation cases with the benefit of Conditional Fee Agreements”.

According to the Law Gazette, the organisation “aims to influence the debate on libel reform by emphasising the rights to obtain redress of those damaged by the media”.

And according to the London School of Economics, the organisation was behind a recent academic report which described itself as “A Rejoinder to the Clamour for Reform of Defamation”, and warned that proposals for reform could spell the “death of libel” and “truly unleash a feral beast” if enacted wholesale.

When I looked up “Lawyers for Media Standards” on the Companies House website, I couldn’t find any company matching that name, but there is an intriguing entry for an organisation called “Lawyers for Media Rights”, which was formally incorporated just over a week ago, on the 10th of March 2010.

The address given is: 50-52 CHANCERY LANE, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM WC2A 1HL. It just so happens that this is the same address as a law firm called Russell, Jones and Walker, whose work includes privacy and “defamation: libel and slander”.

For some reason, although this is officially public information, if you want to know more details, Companies House will charge you for them. So I had to spend £2 (and endure a somewhat cumbersome payment system), to glean the following additional information:

Lawyers for Media Rights has just one “officer”, the Director, Jeremy Clarke-Williams. It lists its objects as “to uphold the principles laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to the media, balancing freedom of expression with the right to reputation and privacy, and to protect and enhance access to justice for claimants harmed by the media”.

A Google search on “Lawyers for Media Rights” currently reveals absolutely nothing (though presumably this blog post will show up shortly). However, the top search result for “Jeremy Clarke-Williams” identifies him as Russell, Jones and Walker’s “partner in the Media, Libel and Privacy department”, where he “specialises in defamation, misuse of private information, media litigation, and reputation management” (1), and is apparently a “‘tough player and tireless adversary’”, admired for his “efficiency, swift responses and encyclopaedic knowledge”.

A search on “Lawyers for Media Standards“, reveals that Jeremy Clarke-Williams’ colleague at RJW, Sarah Webb, is a “founding member”. Other members reportedly include Jonathan Coad of media law firm Swan Turton and Dominic Crossley of Collyer Bristow.

The precise relationship between Lawyers for Media Standards and Lawyers for Media Rights seems unclear. But from the links between them, and the fact that they seem to be covering similar ground, I would guess that they might be quite closely related.

Interestingly, in 2005, Jeremy Clarke-Williams was quoted in a BBC article after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the “McLibel two”, Helen Steel and David Morris, had been denied their right to a fair trial when they were refused legal aid in defending a libel case brought against them by McDonalds.

Clarke-Williams reportedly told the BBC it was unlikely the government would need to change the law in the light of the court’s ruling, because the cutback in legal aid and emergence of “no win no fee” agreements had largely plugged the hole in provision which led to the European Court action.

I suspect that many who’ve read the excellent report on libel abuse by the Libel Reform campaign would beg to differ. There’s obviously a great deal at stake here, and those who make money out of libel cases are presumably entitled to engage in political campaigning if they want to. But so too are we. Anyone for a flash mob?

*UPDATE* - Libel industry lobbyists have sought to characterise the Libel Reform campaign as driven primarily by the self-interest of big media groups. In fact it was initiated by two long-standing human rights organisations, Index on Censorship and English PEN, along with the skeptical campaigners Sense About Science, and enjoys broad support across civil society. Here’s the ferocious anti-corruption group Global Witness explaining why, in the context of libel, “no win no fee” agreements pose such a threat to its work.

(1) I should say, for the sake of clarity, that I take the above to mean that Jeremy Clarke-Williams specialises in taking action against defamation and misuse of private information, as opposed to any other meaning that might mistakenly be inferred…

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Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 10:56 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Richard you are a tiger grrrrrr
    good work

    middleclassmayhem

    March 16, 2010 at 11:13 pm

  2. as you know sly and reggie will be there
    just say the word

    middleclassmayhem

    March 16, 2010 at 11:17 pm

  3. Excellent detective work!

    Zeno

    March 17, 2010 at 12:13 am

  4. I don’t really understand this post. I have no idea who these lawyers are, but the story here seems to be “Libel lawyer has opinion on libel law”. Well why shouldn’t he?

    Are you really going to go down the route taken by Liz Cheney and other neocons in America, who are trying to smear the lawyers who defended those detained in Guatanamo bay as the “Al-Qaeda 7″, and labelling the US Department of Justice, the “Department of Jihad”?

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/radio/2010/03/03/hafetz/index.html

    Lawyers defend bad, stupid people all the time. The BCA have brought a terrible libel case against Simon. But they still deserve representation. And as a libel lawyer, he is in an ideal place to have informed views on the state of the libel laws. You or I may disagree with his conclusions about the libel laws, but that’s another matter.

    Now, it could be that these particular lawyers are just acting in their own self-interest by opposing libel reform. But you are a self-proclaimed sceptic, and I consider myself one too, and to say that they are acting in their self-interest, we need evidence. To act otherwise would be to not acting sceptically.

    Alex

    March 17, 2010 at 4:26 am

    • Sorry Alex but I don’t buy this argument that defending an unpopular client in order to ensure a fair trial (good, honorable, unproblematic etc.) is morally comparable to aggressively prosecuting a vexatious, (dare I say “bogus”) libel case against an innocent person that only makes it through court due to the dysfunctional nature of our libel system. In fact, I think you’re doing a disservice to the Guantanamo lawyers (+ everyone else who ever took flack for defending a heinous murderer) by making that comparison. The former involves doing what is necessary to ensure a fair trial, the latter involves helping to facilitate an injustice. Important difference. I respect the “taxi rank” argument but your version of it is a fallacy…

      I’m not sure I’ve said anything about the motivations of this industry lobby group, other than refer to what they themselves have said publicly. But I think that the history of industry lobby groups is fairly well-understood, and their purpose usually self-evident.

      Richard Wilson

      March 17, 2010 at 7:02 am

  5. Oh, and here’s the blog of those who wrote the mentioned LSE report:

    http://lsemediapal.blogspot.com/

    Alex

    March 17, 2010 at 4:29 am

  6. Excellent post! BTW, it’s David Morris, rather than Norris.

    Brook

    March 17, 2010 at 9:02 am

  7. Simon Singh is being defended by lawyers acting on a Conditional Fee Agreement, as was Henrik Thomsen. That would not happen if the lawyers could not take the risk of losing cases such as those by being able to charge success fees on the cases they win. By supporting the effective abolition of Conditonal Fee Agreements by the removal of effective success fees you are falling for the lobbying by the rich and powerful who do not like those of limited means being able to challenge them in the courts. Don’t get fooled!

    Mickyb

    March 17, 2010 at 9:46 am

  8. I too am slightly confused, what’s the issue with success fee charging? I understand the need for reforming the libel laws but not where this fee basis comes into it. Doesn’t this allow those who don’t have other means the opportunity to defend themselves on a no win – no fee basis? (assuming they can find a firm to take the case).

    Crocoduck

    March 17, 2010 at 10:08 am

  9. [...] The challenge by “Lawyers for Media Standards” to the Lord Chancellor’s his decision to reduce the maximum success fee in defamation claims to 10% has finally been picked up by the mainstream media.  Michael Peel wrote an article in the FT under the headline “Libel Lawyers hit back in free speech” debate.  Strictly speaking, the challenge has nothing whatever to do with any “free speech debate” but, rather, relates to the lawfulness of a decision about CFA success fees.   One of the points made is that the Lord Chancellor had failed to take into account the fact that CFAs can also protect free speech (both Simon Singh and Henrik Thomsen have supported their high profile libel defences by using them).  Nevertheless, overall, this is a characteristically fair and balanced piece.   The members of “Lawyers for Media Standards” may well thrive on the descrption of them as an “enigmatic group”.  The group has received some attention on the blogosphere for example a piece entitled “Lawyers for Media Standards: Who are they?” on the Greenslade Blog and on Richard Wilson’s “Don’t be Fooled Again” blog. [...]

  10. [...] is perhaps to be expected given the money involved, the libel industry has been running a classic lobbying campaign against moves for reform. In the  process they have enlisted the help of the notorious former [...]

  11. No win no fee * means that you will not be liable to pay for any legal fees and you get to keep 100% of your compensation. If in the event that your claim goes on to be unsuccessful, you will not be liable to bear any of the costs. Using Claims Helpline will also not cost you a single penny too.

    helplineclaims

    September 28, 2011 at 11:52 am


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