Carter-Ruck: guardians of free speech - yes, really

Freelance journalist Hardeep Singh faced the fight of his life when he was personally sued by a Sikh holyman in what would become a cause celebre in the campaign for libel reform. He was thrown a lifeline in his free speech battle from what many journalists would see as an unlikely source

Many would probably disagree with me on the mere suggestion, albeit controversially, that Carter-Ruck, the famous media law firm, have in recent years, played a significant role as guardians of free speech. When I put this argument to a floppy-haired Guardian-reading libertarian in a Camden cafe, he predictably raised a skeptical eyebrow and said: "You can’t be serious Hardeep!" But here’s the thing, I am.

Of course the firm is better known for acting tenaciously for libel claimants and for famously having the first letter of Ruck being replaced by F in Private Eye. Some writers, including an author I know, see getting a threatening letter from Carter-Ruck perversely as some kind of badge of honour. "I’m going to frame it in my office", he tells me – whilst sipping a caramel latte. Others view firms like Carter-Ruck and Schillings euphemistically as "reputation managers" for the privileged and wealthy.

Clients include high-profile politicians, celebrities, heads of state, the Church of Scientology and the media mogul Simon Cowell. Notably, the firm has also acted for individuals falsely accused of being involved in terrorism. They were recipients of significant criticism whilst acting for the large oil trading company, Trafigura. Carter-Ruck, Trafigura and Guardian were elevated into the echelons of ‘trending topics’ on twitter. Newspapers accused the firm of attempting to stop reports of parliamentary proceedings.

However, less known are three recent libel cases, where the heavyweight lawyers acted for ordinary individuals, facing ruinous defamation claims. The cases involved matters of significant public interest, brought by wealthy foreign claimants or corporations. All three of these cases were successfully defended during the period of campaigning by the Libel Reform Campaign. Unsurprisingly, Carter-Ruck were not hailed as heroes of libel reform, but the cases below highlight the duality in a complex debate, where those perceived as media terminators have the ability to transform effortlessly into guardians of free speech.

In all three cases Carter-Ruck acted on a no win, no fee basis (conditional fee arrangement). And in the Sikh holy man case at least, they were left significantly out of pocket after failing to recover any fees from the claimant.

GE v Thomsen

US corporation GE Healthcare sued Professor Henrik Thomsen, a Professor of Radiology from Herlev Hospital, Copenhagen. The proceedings issued in London, were related to a presentation given in 2007 in Oxford, titled “Management in Radiology” and statements made in 2008 in an article published in Thomsen’s name, titled “Imaging Management". Thomsen criticised Omniscan, GE’s contrast agent, which is used to show up tissues during Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). He had raised concern about the potential link between the injectable drug and patients suffering from a rare but debilitating kidney condition, known as Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis (NSF).

Confidential terms of settlement in the libel proceedings were agreed in early 2010. GE Healthcare stated the action was brought not to stifle academic debate, but because they interpreted the statements as a suggestion that they had known the connection between Omniscan and NSF from the outset. Andrew Stephenson of Carter-Ruck acted for Thomsen.

Mengi v Hermitage – also known as the ‘Silverdale case’

In 2004 Sarah Hermitage, a British lawyer and human rights campaigner, purchased two properties in Tanzania known as Silverdale and Mbono farms with her husband Stewart Middleton. After a dispute with the vendor, the couple were forced to leave their investment in 2008, returning back to Britain. The brother of the vendor, Reginald Mengi, a media tycoon from Tanzania, brought a libel case, for two e-mails and blog posts published by Hermitage on her experiences in Tanzania, which Mengi said were false and defamatory of him. The claimant’s pre-action costs amounted to £298,245.07.

During the trial in November 2012, the court heard how a major factor in the ordeal suffered by the couple, was the ‘defamatory’ coverage received from the English language Guardian and the Swahili Nipashe, titles owned by Mengi’s IPP Publications. Mr Justice Bean ruled in Hermitage’s favour: "I find for the Defendant on both justification and qualified privilege." Andrew Stephenson of Carter-Ruck acted for Hermitage on a defendant CFA. Read the full judgment here.

His Holiness v Singh

In 2007 His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj, an Indian ‘holy man’ from Panjab, brought libel proceedings for an article published in an English newspaper, headlined "Cult divides Sikh congregation in High Wycombe". The piece highlighted concerns about political infighting in Sikh temples in Britain, based on a dispute hinging on the authority of ‘His Holiness’. Sahota Solicitors won the case, and defeated the Maharaj claim, before Mr Justice Eady in May 2010 on the grounds of "non-justiciability". The decision was based on the premise that secular courts will not adjudicate matters of religious doctrinal dispute or deviation. Link to judgment.

‘His Holiness’ appealed and Carter-Ruck were instructed thereafter. In 2011, a successful application for security for costs was made before Lord Justice Sedley and Lord Justice Pitchford. They ordered the appellant to lodge £250,000 security into court. ‘His Holiness’ failed to do so and the case was eventually struck out. Judgment here.

Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck acted on a defendant CFA along with After the Events Insurance (ATE).

‘His Holiness’ has defaulted on adverse cost orders in the libel case, however he and his ‘followers’ have since been involved in a successful appeal in the UK Supreme Court in separate proceedings.

Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist and defendant in His Holiness v Singh, he tweets @singhtwo2

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