Chris Jefferies defends no win, no fee libel system

Joanna Yeates’s landlord hit out today at the “extraordinary tissue of fabrication and misrepresentation” spread in the media after his arrest on suspicion of her murder.

Christopher Jefferies was the subject of a barrage of news stories after he was arrested on December 30 last year – stories, he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, which meant he was essentially a prisoner unable to leave the house where he was staying with friends.

His bail was not lifted by Avon and Somerset Police until 4 March, after Dutchman Vincent Tabak, who was jailed for life last week, had been arrested and charged with Miss Yeates’s murder.

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The Daily Mirror was fined £50,000 and The Sun £18,000 earlier this year after being found guilty of contempt of court, and Jefferies received damages for libel from eight papers – The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Record, Daily Express, Daily Star and Scotsman.

He told the Today programme that he had effectively been housebound while on bail because of the press interest.

“Those nine weeks or so from the beginning of January to the beginning of March were a particularly stressful period for me,” he said.

“During the time I was in custody, the solicitor who was representing me had very, very wisely decided that it was certainly not a good idea that I should be made aware of that (the news stories) and friends after my release protected me from a great deal of it.”

He said he had suggested walking into Bristol to buy new clothes and items for washing but his solicitor advised him against it.

“It was at that point the solicitor emphasised in no uncertain terms that this would be an extremely bad idea and that, if necessary, he would come down from London to dissuade me in person,” he said.

“It was at that point that I realised how much of a household name, for all the wrong reasons, I had become.”

He added: “When one is arrested one is in a particularly defenceless position and it is then made doubly worse if on to that defenceless person is imposed the entirely defamatory and entirely unreal personality that was imposed upon me.”

Jefferies was speaking to the Today programme in support of the Hacked Off campaign against the Government’s plans to reform “no win, no fee” Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs), arguing that he would not have been able to sue the newspapers without them.

The family of murdered Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler are also campaigning against the changes, which the Government says are designed to stop spurious legal action.

The Divisional Court – Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Owen – found in July that articles in the Daily Mirror on 31 December and 1 January and in The Sun the same day relating to Mr Jefferies were in contempt.

One Daily Mirror front page carried the headline “Jo Suspect Is Peeping Tom” beneath a photograph of Jefferies, and another front-page headline read “Was Killer Waiting In Jo’s Flat?”, with sub-headings below reading “Police seize bedding for tests” and “Landlord held until Tuesday”.

The Sun’s front-page headline read “Obsessed By Death”, next to a photograph of Jefferies, and below the words “Jo Suspect ‘Scared Kids'”.

Jefferies told the Today programme that he had taken legal action because the newspapers had had a “field day” with his reputation.

He conceded that his case was extraordinary but added that losing CFAs would mean that “access to justice” was denied to many people.

“There is absolutely no question that I would not have been able to take the action that I did, because at the moment one is able to take out a CFA and that means the lawyers’ success fees, which are a percentage of the total legal costs of taking the action, will be paid by the other side and one won’t be responsible for those,” he said.

“Because these cases can be dragged out over a considerable period of time – particularly if they go to court – then the legal fees are astronomic and one couldn’t begin to potentially expose oneself to the risk of having to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in advance.”

He added: “I’m not necessarily talking about cases as such as my own. I think what people are much more concerned about is people, for example, who have to take actions against intrusion into privacy where damages are very much less even than those awarded for libel, and particularly in the case of defendants in libel cases who, of course if they succeed in defending themselves get no damages, no damages at all.”

The Dowlers warned yesterday that people of “ordinary means” will no longer be able to defend themselves in court as a result of the Government’s plans.

Milly’s family, who used the CFA system to obtain a multimillion- pound settlement over the hacking of the murdered schoolgirl’s phone, were among the signatories of a letter published in the Guardian criticising the reforms.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “We, of course, understand Mr Jefferies’ pain. “He was given generous compensation as a result of legal action. We want ordinary people to continue having access to justice through CFAs – but that is not the issue.

“The problem is that lawyers on CFAs charge inordinate success fees which bear little relation to either their risk or the level of damages awarded.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “The Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that people can access the justice system, regardless of their financial situation, which is why we are committed to maintaining ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements.

“There are many deserving cases brought before the courts. But we have to stop the abuse of the system by others pursing excessive, costly and unnecessary cases.

“Under the current arrangements, innocent defendants can face enormous costs, which can discourage them from fighting cases. This simply isn’t fair.

“So, in order to ensure that the no win, no fee cases continue to provide fair access to justice for all, we have to make changes.

“By balancing the costs more fairly between the claimant and defendant, these changes will ensure that claimants will still be able to bring deserving claims, and receive damages where they are due.

“Most importantly they will make the no win, no fee system sustainable for the future.”

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