Libel reporting under threat by law change

By Dominic Ponsford
 
Journalists are alarmed by a rule change that this week stopped
courts from releasing background papers attached to legal claim forms.

The move will curb reporting the details of libel claims – often
involving high-profile celebrities, businesspeople and politicians.

And it could mean a dramatic decrease in income for court-based freelance journalists.

This
week three of the country’s biggest newspaper publishers – Associated
Newspapers, News International and Trinity Mirror – all wrote to the
Department of Constitutional Affairs to protest against the move.

The
rule change, which came into force on 1 October, means that although
“claim forms” remain open to the public, journalists will have to apply
to a judge to see “any documents filed with, or attached to, or
intended by the claimant to be served with such claim forms”.

In
a joint letter the newspaper groups said: “The proposed change is a
radical departure from current practice. The media’s ability to publish
fair and accurate reports of court proceedings is a vital and
fundamental aspect of open justice. Any interference with the Article
10 right to freedom of expression, which includes, of course, the right
of the public to receive and impart information, must be necessary and
proportionate.

“We and our clients suggest that the proposed rule
change constitutes an unnecessary and disproportionate interference
with the right to freedom of expression.

“It is in our and our
clients’ view quite wrong that the public should be denied information
about the parties to High Court litigation and the nature of the cases
they have brought before the courts.

“The business of the courts
is publicly administered and financed, and the nature of High Court
proceedings and the identity of parties to such proceedings are matters
of very considerable public interest.”

Freelance journalist Sarah
Limbrick said: “I’ve been covering the issue of writs in the High Court
for the past 17 years – my job and those of my colleagues will be
seriously affected by this.

“We’ve all enjoyed access to these
documents for many years and it seems quite wrong to take this away
without consultation – it may be that I am unable to continue offering
this service to newspapers.

“It seems to me the court system is
doing the exact opposite of its stated aim. It is committed to freedom
of information, transparency and open justice, and this flies in the
face of it.”

A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional
Affairs said the rule change, brought in by the Civil Procedure Rule
Committee, was a “clarification” of existing procedures.

He said:
“The rule always said it is just the claim form that people should have
access to. The claim form doesn’t mean the claim form and all documents
that come with the form.”

Firm’s concern over conflict of interest

LAWYERS VOW TO PROTECT MEDIA

One of the country’s largest firms of media defence lawyers is to
stop acting for clients suing the media because it might erode the
press’ right to report freely, writes Jean Morgan.

In a notable first, the media department of Reynolds Porter
Chamberlain (RPC), led by Liz Hartley, has decided to focus exclusively
on protecting the interests of the media.

One of the reasons is
the “chilling effect” on the media caused by the ready availability and
use of no-win, no-fee agreements by claimants in libel and privacy
cases, said Hartley.

Last week’s Press Gazette revealed that
Hollywood star Sharon Stone was the latest rich claimant to use the
no-win, no-fee process, in this case to sue the Daily Mail for libel.

Conditional
fee agreements were meant to allow people who could not afford to sue
for libel access to justice. Solicitors acting for claimants in these
cases are allowed to double their fees if the client wins, an
arrangement that is causing angst to publishers facing hugely inflated
costs.

But the main reason for RPC’s resolution was conflict of interest.

Hartley
said: “The interests of a person who sues the media will naturally
clash with that of the media’s, and we do not want to place ourselves
in a position where in acting in a claimant’s best interests, we would
end up eroding the media’s right to report freely.”

RPC has been
involved in cases including Martha Greene v Associated Newspapers
(defending an injunction in a libel action and in protecting a
newspaper’s right to publish where it intended to prove the article was
true) and Loutchansky v Times Newspapers (which tested the scope of the
Reynolds public interest defence).

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