The Daily Mirror’s right to freedom of expression was violated by a ‘success fee’it was forced to pay after losing a privacy case brought by Naomi Campbell after it published stories about her drug addiction, the European Court ruled today.
The European Court of Human Rights said the ‘success fee’Mirror Group Newspapers – publisher of the Mirror – was forced to pay after it lost the case was disproportionate.
The unanimous verdict by the eight European Court judges is likely to have considerable ramifications for the way in which lawyers and newspaper publishers approach libel and privacy cases in future.
Today’s ruling was against the UK Government, which sanctioned the “success fee” formula in which lawyers in “no win no fee” civil cases stand to gain hefty bonuses against the losing defendants.
MGN said the ruling proved the system of success fees was flawed and would increase pressure on the Government to abolish the recovery of such fees.
A Government review of the arrangement is already under way, with a recommendation in the pipeline that lawyers in future should not get a “success fee” but a share of any damages awarded to the successful defendant.
Campbell successfully sued the paper for breach of confidence after it published a front page story in 2001, headed: ‘Naomi: I am a drug addict”
After a series of appeals, the House of Lords ruled in Campbell’s favour in 2004, saying publication of pictures, in combination with the article, had been offensive, distressing and breached her right to respect for her private life.
MGN had complained that the fees were hugely disproportionate to the £3,500 awarded to Campbell in damages. Her total legal costs, with success fee, came to more than £1m.
The Law Lords dismissed MGN’s contesting of the success fee claimed by Campbell’s lawyers, finding that the existing legal regime governing the conditional fee agreements was compatible with the convention of claiming a success fee.
The European Court ruled today that the existence of the current success fee regime created pressure on publishers to settle cases which could have been defended and therefore represented a risk to media reporting and freedom of expression.
The ruling said the requirement on MGN to pay the success fees, which had been agreed by Campbell and her solicitors, went against the aims of a system designed to improve access to justice.
The court noted that as Campbell was wealthy, she was not the sort of person the scheme had been initially set up to help.
A MGN spokesman said: “This has been a long hard fight on the success fee in this case, but we have been proved right.
“Not only that, but the whole system of CFAs with success fees has been found by the court to be flawed.
“This judgment should increase pressure on the Coalition Government to abolish the recovery of such fees from defendants and we look forward to that happening in the near future.”
The Mirror had further complained to the Human Rights court that the privacy verdict in favour of Campbell, as well as the amount of legal fees it had to pay, breached the paper’s right to “freedom of expression”, safeguarded by the Human Rights Convention.
But the Strasbourg judges rejected that claim, saying a balance had to be struck between “the public interest in the publication of the articles and photographs of Ms Campbell, and the need to protect her private life”.
The ruling continued: “Given that the sole purpose of the publication of the photographs and articles had been to satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership about the details of a public figure’s private life, those publications had not contributed to any debate of general interest to society.”
There was, therefore, a lower level of protection of freedom of expression for the newspaper, and the UK courts had correctly backed Campbell’s claim for breach of her right to respect for her private life – the court said.
The MGN spokesman said: “We are disappointed to have lost the breach of confidence claim on a story which everyone agrees was in the public interest and which we have fought to defend for ten years.”
The Ministry of Justice said last night that the Government was considering the court’s ruling and would respond with its observations in due course.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said:”We have already put plans out to consultation for much-needed reform of conditional fee arrangements, including success fees.
“This is intended to support wider Government efforts to help businesses and public bodies fearful of costly litigation.
“We want to deter avoidable or unnecessary cases by ensuring claimants have a financial interest in controlling legal costs in their case, which will reduce overall costs.
“Under the current arrangements claimants generally have no interest in the costs incurred because, win or lose, they do not have to pay anything towards them.
“Our proposals are designed to correct this and prevent the situation in which, regardless of the merits of their case, defendants are forced to settle for fear of prohibitive costs.”
The ongoing consultation into cost reform, which is running alongside a legal aid reform consultation, closes on 14 February.