Dacre hails victory over probe DCI

By Jon Slattery

Associated Newspapers’ editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has claimed a
victory for press freedom after a former Scotland Yard detective lost
his no-win no-fee libel case over articles concerning the investigation
of false sex allegations against Neil and Christine Hamilton.

If Associated had lost the case – which has again put the spotlight
on the controversial use of conditional fee agreements in libel cases –
it could have cost the company millions of pounds because of the extra
fees lawyers can charge in no-win no-fee cases.

DCI Christopher
Miller, now a Superintendent in Hertfordshire, sued over articles in
the Daily Mail and Evening Standard. He said the articles accused him
of “gross incompetence” in two police investigations: the
investigations into allegations of sexual assault made against Neil and
Christine Hamilton, and an earlier serious rape case involving an
alleged drug-assisted abduction and gang rape which collapsed at trial
in August 1999. The action was defended on the basis that the articles
were true.

The judge, Mr Justice Eady, found that Miller had a
leading role in, and responsibility for, the Hamilton inquiry and was
among those responsible for its failings.

Afterwards, Dacre said:
“This is a significant victory for newspapers and the freedom of the
press. The judge confirmed the subject of the Mail’s articles was a
matter of legitimate public interest, but a case like this also
highlights a most serious issue for those who care about freedom of
expression.

“Because of no-win no-fee arrangements now offered by
lawyers, the potential cost of defending an article that raises issues
of clear public interest could have run into millions of pounds.”

Harvey
Kass, legal director of Associated Newspapers, added: “As the judge
observed, this was a case of ‘public importance’ concerning ‘the way in
which sensitive allegations of rape were dealt with by the Metropolitan
Police’. Our policy is to do whatever is necessary to defend
unjustified claims about our articles.

We are pleased that Mr Justice Eady has totally vindicated the newspapers’ decision to fight this case.

“The
case has highlighted the flaws in the rules governing the conditional
fee regime, which we believe are probably unlawful. When the cost of
defending one article in the public interest can amount to millions of
pounds, the implications for freedom of expression are extreme.

“Urgent
action is needed to address this serious problem. Until this is done,
some lawyers will continue to claim costs of approaching £900 an hour.
On top of this, an ‘insurance premium’ will often also be claimed from
a publisher. In this case, had Mr Miller won, the Police Federation
would have claimed a notional premium of in excess of £600,000.”

Mr
Justice Eady noted that a striking feature of the case was how many
police officers, serving and retired, were called to give evidence on
behalf of the newspapers.

The witnesses included Michael Todd,
Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police Force and Duncan
Croll, formerly a Commander of the Metropolitan Police, who were
described by the judge as formidable witnesses.

Liz Hartley,
media partner at City law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, said: “The
judge accepted the compelling evidence of our police witnesses from
across the ranks, many of whom are members of the Police Federation.

“Against
this background, it is surprising that the federation, now facing a
costs liability of well over £1m, supported this action. This claim was
funded on a no-win no-fee agreement with Miller’s solicitors.”

Kass
added: “Winning this case depended on years of detailed and outstanding
work by our legal team at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain led by Liz
Hartley, which succeeded in uncovering crucial evidence going back to
1998, together with brilliant analysis and advocacy from Mark Warby QC,
William McCormick and Adam Speker.”

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