Ex-speaker Martin delays CFA fees cut

A move to limit the fees which lawyers can claim for successful “no-win, no-fee” defamation cases is being held up by former Commons Speaker, Lord Martin of Springburn.

The crossbench peer has tabled a “motion of regret” against a Statutory Instrument laid by Justice Secretary Jack Straw which seeks to cut limit fees to just ten per cent of their current level.

Lord Martin’s motion calls for more consultation on the impact of the new regime, and means that – with time running out before the general election – a slot will have to be found for the matter to be debated on the floor of the House of Lords.

The motion, on the House of Lords order paper yesterday, reads: “That this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government have laid before Parliament the Conditional Fee Agreements (Amendment) Order 2010 without allowing sufficient time for consultation with all of the professional and legal bodies concerned and in light of the benefit of no-win, no-fee arrangements for those on modest and low incomes.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the Government was working to find time for the new regime to be debated ahead of the election.

The move follows the formation of a lawyers pressure group, Lawyers for Media Standards, which has already threatened to seek a judicial review of proposed changes relating to CFAs that are due to come into force next month.

At present, lawyers working on CFAs can claim a success fee of up to 100 per cent – doubling their normal fees – from the losing defendants in defamation and privacy cases.

Media organisations say that the success fee, intended to enable lawyers who work on CFAs to use the money raised to finance any cases they lose, means that costs in defamation and privacy cases have grown to become grossly disproportionate.

They also say it has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, with editors either not running stories because of the risks of a highly expensive libel action, or settling cases they might be able to defend simply to avoid the huge costs involved.

Announcing the new limits earlier this month, Straw said reducing success fees would “help level the playing field” so that scientists, journalists and writers could continue to publish articles which are in the public interest without incurring such disproportionate legal bills.

“This is particularly important for ensuring open scientific exchange and protecting the future of our regional media, who have small budgets but play a large role in our democracy,” he said.

The Justice Secretary also argued that reducing the success fee from 100 per cent to ten per cent would rebalance the system so the press could afford to defend defamation cases but would still ensure access to justice for those who felt they had been defamed.

“This is a swift solution to an immediate problem,” Straw added.

The changes followed a four-week consultation process, which lawyers said was unfair and inadequate.

Lord Martin famously led attempts to keep details of MPs’ expenses claims secret by fighting a Freedom of Information Request. As a result of his handling of the controversy he became the first speaker to be forced from office in 300 years.

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