Costs already more than £3m in Channel 4 libel trial

Costs in a defamation claim brought against Channel 4 by Michael Jackson’s former bodyguard have reached more than £3m.

The scale of the cost became apparent in a High Court ruling made last week.

Justice Tugendhat decided that Matthew Fiddes’ action against Channel 4 over a documentary supposedly showing Jackson’s brother, Tito, moving to Devon would be heard without a jury.

Tugendhat passed the ruling following an application by defendants, Channel 4, Studio Lambert Ltd, and journalist Jane Preston.

The decision was the latest stage in a hard-fought libel battle in which Fiddes, being represented on a conditional fee arrangement by law firm M Law, claims Channel 4 faked elements of the documentary.

In his ruling, the judge said a factor in his decision to hear the case without a jury was the question of the increasing costs.

“Not many cases get to trial – something in the order of five to ten. And when they do get to trial, the costs are enormous. Here it is in excess of £3 million.

“Nevertheless, if there are savings in costs to be made, even at this late stage, they can be made.”

A further factor in the decision was that the case “raises issues about what is and is not acceptable editorial practice in a TV broadcast presented as factual”, the judge said, adding: “This is a question which has been raised over the last few years on a number of occasions and in relation to a number of broadcasters.

“It is a very important question and there is much to be said for it to be dealt with in a reasoned judgment and for public view and which can go to appeal.”

Costs were now acknowledged to present a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the defendants had argued that needed to be taken into account as the court exercised its discretion on the jury trial issue.

“An extra week of trial would undoubtedly be a lot of money in most people’s terms,” the judge said.

“The difference between two and four weeks and six weeks, or even between a two-week and a four-week trial, represents a considerable sum of money. I won’t attempt to assess it but in this case it is likely to be a substantial sum of money.

“So on the question of what the impact will be on freedom of expression, I accept that at this late stage, the chilling effect, as it is called, may not be as great as it might have been if the point had been considered earlier, nevertheless it is a factor and one to which I should give some weight.

“And I should also consider the Human Rights Act and the importance attached to a reasoned judgment…”

The trial is expected to start in mid-June – and could go on until the end of July.

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