NHS Trust has spent £150,000 pursuing journalist

By Dominic Ponsford

Merseycare NHS trust has admitted to Press Gazette that it has so far spent more than £150,000 trying to make investigative journalist Robin Ackroyd give up a confidential source.

The trust, which runs Ashworth high security mental hospital, initially refused a request to find out how much it had spent on pursuing Ackroyd since 2002.

But after Press Gazette lodged a Freedom of Information question, the trust revealed the figure at the end of the statutory 20-day limit.

The trust has been trying since June 2002 to make Ackroyd reveal the source of a Daily Mirror story based on Moors murderer Ian Brady’s medical records.

In February, the trust failed in a High Court bid to make Ackroyd give up the source and had costs awarded against it. Two weeks ago it revealed that it was appealing the case to the House of Lords.

With Ackroyd’s costs, Merseycare’s financial liability is expected to at least double. Taking into account the costs of the House of Lords appeal, it is likely that the NHS will end up paying out more than £500,000 in its pursuit of what High Court judge Mr Justice Tugendhat described as "a responsible journalist whose purpose was to act in the public interest".

That breaks down as enough money to pay for about 100 hip replacement operations, 600 cataract operations or 60 heart bypasses.

The Ashworth mental hospital sources battle began in December 1999 when the Mirror published confidential medical records that revealed how Brady was on hunger strike and being force-fed.

NHS officials took the paper all the way to the House of Lords and won on 27 June 2002 — at which point Ackroyd came forward as the intermediary.

Ashworth then sought a summary judgment (without trial) to reveal the source, which Ackroyd successfully defended at the Court of Appeal in May 2003.

Because costs for the early part of the sources battle were awarded against the Daily Mirror, the trust’s legal costs only date from June 2002.

The Merseycare fees so far break down as: £141,335 in solicitors’ and counsels’ fees, and £15,000 for witness and preparation costs. It has made a payment into court of £20,000 for Ackroyd’s costs — no further payment will now be made because the House of Lords could reverse the costs decision.

Ackroyd said of Merseycare’s costs figure: "Bearing in mind what my own legal costs have been, [the trust’s costs] appear to be very low indeed." He has said that the trust’s "relentless" pursuit of him has "cast a shadow" over his personal and professional life.

The House of Lords appeal and the possibility of a further appeal after that to the European Court means Ackroyd’s legal ordeal could last as long as a decade.

The Merseycare legal action is based on a point of principle rather than serving a practical purpose, as Ackroyd’s source has never made any further revelations. Brady has since come to support Ackroyd, offered to testify on his behalf and relinquished his right to confidentiality.

In a statement made when it lodged its latest appeal, Ashworth said: "We hope to establish the important principle of medical confidentiality."

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