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”?
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…