MP's decision to sue over £5 expenses claim costs £180,000 in legal fees

An attempt by the late MP Frank Cook to sue the Sunday Telegrah over a story that he tried to claim a £5 church donation on expenses looks set to cost his estate £180,000 in legal fees.

Lawyers representing Cook have failed in an attempt to cut the 100 per cent success fee claimed by the newspaper's lawyer. Solicitor-advocate David Price QC defended the newspaper on a no-win, no-fee Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) when Cook – who was also being represented on a CFA – launched his case.

Cook, who was MP for Stockton North from 1983 until 2010, and who died of cancer at the age of 76 in January this year, had sued over three articles, including a leader, which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 31 May, 2009. They reported that his Parliamentary expenses claims included one for reimbursement of the offertory donation, made by an aide representing him at the Battle of Britain service.

He had admitted having claimed the £5 on expenses, but said he did so by mistake.

Mr Justice Tugendhat held first that the words of which Cook complained were protected by the defence of honest comment, and then in June last year rejected Cook's attempt to overcome that defence by proving malice. The defeat left Cook facing the bill for the costs of the action.

His lawyers and the newspaper were able to reach agreement on base costs, which amounted to £90,000. But his lawyers then challenged the 100 per cent success fee Price was claiming, saying first of all that no success fee should be allowed, and then arguing that it should be cut from 100 per cent.

They objected to a number of elements in Price's risk assessment for the CFA on which he represented the newspaper – including the facts that experience showed that both juries and libel law procedure tended to favour the claimant, increasing the risks for the defendant – saying that they were too generalised. Price responded that both elements were valid as they reflected the experience of those who practised in the field of libel, which made defending cases particularly risky. His arguments were accepted by a principal costs officer on Monday.

The decision means that as well as the £90,000 in base costs, Cook's estate also faces a bill for £90,000 for the CFA success fee.

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