Posts Tagged ‘carter ruck’
A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in legal costs since 2008.
The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team. Durand records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.
The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.
The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.
The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.
But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.
In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.
As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.
(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)
(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163 on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)
When even a primary school is threatening its critics with libel, you know it’s time for Libel Reform
LIBEL IN THE SCHOOLYARD
Richard Wilson asks: Why would a London primary school employ the services of a political lobbying firm — and libel lawyers Carter Ruck?
A South London primary school is funding a libel action brought by current and former employees over three emails sent by the Chief Auditor of Lambeth Council. The school has ignored a freedom of information request for details of how much it is spending on the court action — but Index on Censorship believes that the costs may already have run into six figures…
From Wikileaks (pdf):
This document was submitted to the UK’s High Court by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in September 2009, as a Defence against a libel claim brought against them by the oil company Trafigura. A May 2009 BBC Newsnight feature suggested that 16 deaths and many other injuries were caused by the dumping in the Ivory Coast of a large quantity of toxic waste originating with Trafigura. A September 2009 UN report into the matter stated that 108,000 people were driven to seek medical attention.
This Defence, which has never been previously published online, outlines in detail the evidence which the BBC believed justified its coverage. In December 2009 the BBC settled out of court amid reports that fighting the case could have cost as much as 3 million pounds. The BBC removed its original Newsnight footage and associated articles from its on-line archives. The detailed claims contained in this document were never aired publicly, and never had a chance to be tested in court.
Commenting on the BBC’s climbdown, John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.” Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said: “Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”
Now that this document is in the public domain, the global public will be able to make their own judgement about the strength of the BBC’s case.
UK’s dysfunctional libel system strikes again? Newsnight feature on Trafigura disappears from BBC website
UPDATE – The censored Newsnight feature on Trafigura may have disappeared from the BBC website, but it’s now all over Youtube…
The BBC lawyers may have caved, but you can still defy Trafigura – click here to find out how!
In May, the BBC ran a feature on the oil company Trafigura, alleging “dirty tricks” over the dumping of toxic waste in the ivory coast. Shortly afterwards, Trafigura announced that they were sueing the BBC for libel.
The case has received very little media attention – a sign, perhaps, of the ongoing chill that Trafigura is managing to cast over the UK media – but it was mentioned again in this Guardian piece last month.
Until very recently, the Newsnight feature was freely available on the BBC’s website – but now it seems to have disappeared. It’s currently still available via Google cache, which indicates that it was on the site as late as lunchtime yesterday. Could of course just be a technical problem but it does look somewhat odd…
UPDATE 11/12/09 – The story has now been missing from the website for more than 24 hours – it’s starting to look more and more likely that the piece has been spiked, and that the BBC – that most British of institutions – may now have become the latest victim of our country’s “rogue state” libel laws. In an ironic twist, it seems that the BBC’s lawyers chose international Human Rights Day as the moment to cave in to this attack on freedom of expression.
Democracy under attack – Carter-Ruck persuades Commons Speaker that courts *can* ban the reporting of Parliament
Can anyone Stop the Ruck?
Carter Ruck’s attempt, on behalf of Trafigura, to ban the media from reporting a question in the British Parliament, had triggered calls for the company’s Directors to be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons and formally reprimanded. Justice Minister Bridget Prentice had reiterated that the 1688/9 Bill of Rights gave the media an absolute privelege to cover the proceedings of Parliament, and that this was essential for the effective functioning of our democracy.
In seeking to explain his firm’s behaviour to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Stephenson certainly appeared defensive, but he didn’t seem in the least bit sorry. He did, though, seem keen to reassure us that the injunction secured by his company on Trafigura’s behalf had been intended merely as an interim holding measure, and that the original purpose had never been to gag the reporting of Parliament.
So it seems very surprising to read in today’s Sunday Times that Stephenson appears to have gone out of his way to persuade the Commons authorities that the law does, after all, allow for the gagging of Parliamentary procedure:
In a submission to a Commons select committee, Carter-Ruck, a law firm that specialises in libel, argues that newspapers and publishers would be in contempt of court if they published parliamentary questions, answers or debates that fell under super-injunctions.
Advisers to John Bercow, the Speaker, are understood to have informed the culture, media and sport committee that Carter-Ruck’s position is correct. MPs regard the position as a serious threat to free speech and the proper functioning of democracy.
Super-injunctions — under which even reporting the existence of the injunction is banned — are increasingly being used to stop the media publishing information. MPs are now concerned that they threaten the media’s right to report what MPs can freely say in parliament, a privilege affirmed in the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840…
At the time of the disagreement, Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, said Carter-Ruck was wrong to claim super-injunctions applied to the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.
However, in a submission to the culture committee published last week, Andrew Stephenson, a senior partner at the firm, said the minister was under a “misapprehension”.
He said that while MPs were guaranteed the right to free speech under the 1688 Bill of Rights within the House of Commons, the reporting of parliament remained subject to court orders.
The Speaker’s counsel declined to comment, but is understood to agree with Stephenson’s assessment.
Thus it appears, after all, that Parliamentary democracy is still under attack, and that Carter-Ruck may be making headway in their attempt to overturn a centuries-old democratic freedom.
What I think this demonstrates, again, is that Carter-Ruck is not just an ordinary law firm, doing what ordinary law firms do. They are actively engaged in lobbying the government to curtail our liberties in the interests of their clients. They are behaving, in other words, like a right-wing activist group.
Presumably if the goverment takes this issue seriously enough, they will table emergency legislation which makes the absolute right to report Parliament fully explicit. In the meantime, judges could ensure that any secret injuction they do grant includes a statement spelling out that the measure does not apply to the reporting of Parliament.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also a pretty clear-cut ethical case for (peaceful, legal) direct political action against Carter-Ruck. The idea that a lawyer – or indeed any other worker – should be exempted from the moral consequences of their professional choices is, in my view, a self-serving myth.
Lawyers who seek to apply an unjust law – be that the law that jailed Oscar Wilde or the laws being used today to suppress freedom of speech – don’t evade moral accountability simply by hiding behind the fact that what they’re doing is ‘legal’. I can’t help but wonder if we might have avoided some of the trouble we’re now in if more had been done to challenge unethical companies like Carter-Ruck at an earlier stage.
But lastly, there has to be a question here about practicality. However much Carter Ruck and their corporate clients might like to suppress free speech through the use of one secret injunction after another, the recent Twitter-storm around Trafigura has shown that this can sometimes be impossible in practice.
If Carter-Ruck are right and Bridget Prentice is wrong, then it seems that I may, after all, have been in contempt of court when I posted the ‘banned’ Parliamentary Question on Twitter back in October. Would I be willing to do so again? I wouldn’t rule it out. And it strikes me that now would be a good time to get a head-count of bloggers and Tweeters prepared to consider engaging in peaceful civil disobedience should Carter-Ruck – or anyone else – attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament again. You can leave a comment here or email me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT UK.
We’re still finalising the details, but on Thursday evening I’ll be unveiling the next step in the ongoing campaign to persuade Trafigura to end their attacks on freedom of speech in the UK. It will involve music, and talking, and cameras, and a number of TBC peaceful, legal activities!
If you’d like to get involved, please do contact me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot uk
From The Guardian
Carter Ruck’s support today for some of the changes put forward in the report came amid continuing criticism of firms that launch expensive libel claims against journalists and other publishers, often using conditional fee agreements which result in higher costs for defendants.
“If we don’t get reforms, what is there to stop a law firm like Carter Ruck bombarding journalists and suppressing information that is in the public interest for three years?” said Meirion Jones, producer at BBC’s Newsnight, which is currently being sued over its reporting of oil trading firm Trafigura.