Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has urged libel lawyers to “clean up their act” and renewed his calls for urgent reform of the no-win no-fee system.
Giving evidence to the media select committee in parliament this morning, Dacre elaborated on a keynote speech given to the Society of Editors conference in Bristol last year, in which he said the Conditional Fee Agreement system was being “ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous lawyers”.
The committee is looking at the CFA system as part of its wide-ranging review of press standards. CFAs allow claimants to pay nothing up front on the understanding that their lawyers can double their money if they win.
With media lawyers charging up to £700 an hour, costs settlements often hugely outweigh any damages paid.
Dacre told the cross-party panel of MPs that the hourly rates charged by libel lawyers should be capped, and the “success fee” – which allows the winning side’s lawyers to increase their costs – should be abolished.
He said he did not understand why a lawyer defending a client’s reputation should charge four times more than a lawyer defending a client in a murder trial.
“I think it’s in the interests of the legal trade to clean up their act,” Dacre told MPs. “They are rapacious, they are greedy, I think they are unscrupulous.”
Dacre said he believed some claimant libel firms were actively seeking new clients by approaching rich celebrities, encouraging them to sue.
He said the risk of being faced with a huge costs bill had forced newspapers to be more risk-averse. CFAs, he said, were a “lethal weapon in crushing press freedom”.
“Every day we are not going quite as far as we used to and we are settling things even at the expense of paying disporportionately high damages not to go to court,” Dacre said.
“The problem is the provincial press – they do not have the money to do any of this. The money we could lose in one case could bankrupt a provincial newspaper chain.”
But he said the Mail’s parent company, Associated Newspapers, would still see a libel case as far as court if it felt it had a strong case.
“We will still fight the ones we feel passionately about,” he said.