Media lobbies Government on 'no win, no fee' libel cases

Satchwell: ‘CFA’s inhibit reporting’

Alarm over the impact on the media of the growing use of the controversial “no win, no fee” agreements in libel cases is being taken up with the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Among concerned groups that have met with the Department are the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors, as well as national newspaper lawyers and broadcasters.

The department is carrying out a wideranging review, looking at all aspects of conditional fee agreements (CFAs). A consultation exercise finished at the end of September and a report is expected some time in the new year.

A department spokesman confirmed that comments about the use of CFAs in libel cases were made during the consultation. It is understood that media representations have continued to be made to the department since then.

What has concerned the press about “no win, no fee” agreements is the way lawyers can charge double fees if they win. It is also argued that it makes plaintiffs less eager to go for quick corrections or use the Press Complaints Commission.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell told Press Gazette: “We have had very useful meetings with the department. We believe that CFAs are inhibiting fast-track remedies when a paper has inadvertently made a mistake and is prepared to correct it. There is no incentive for the plaintiff to settle. We have pointed out to the department that this legislation was never meant to inhibit reporting in the public interest but to help those without resources.”

Satchwell also voiced concern that when costs are agreed there is an assumption by the court that all media organisations are wealthy.

He said: “CFAs are mainly a problem for the nationals at the moment but they could spread to small local newspapers and broadcasters, which could be put out of business by losing a libel action.”

At the Press Gazette and Newspaper Society Law for Journalists Conference last month, Andrew Caldecott QC, described CFA claimants as the most dangerous for the media. “It’s double your money for the claimant’s solicitor, but no win for the newspaper,” he said.

Caldecott suggested the media should find the right case and challenge the 100 per cent markup on costs on the grounds it infringed freedom of expression.

By Jon Slattery

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