The Times has apologised and paid substantial damages to a law firm that it wrongly alleged was being sued for negligence by a former client over a claim relating to the MMR vaccine.
The story headlined "MMR families sue their legal aid lawyers" reported on 26 June that Hodge Jones and Allen LLP was being sued by Matthew McCafferty, the High Court was told.
Justin Rushbrooke QC, for the Hodge Jones and Allen, told the High Court that the firm depended for its success on its reputation for skill, competence and integrity. The firm specialises in personal injury, medical and professional negligence, product liability and vaccine damage claims among other areas.
Rushbrooke told Sir David Eady in the High Court: "It is widely regarded as an ethical law firm that provides access to justice for clients who could not otherwise obtain it, and that puts the needs of its clients first."
The article in The Times – which also appeared on the newspaper's website – said McCafferty was suing the firm for substantial damages for negligence and "unjust enrichment as officers of the Court" over a claim relating to the MMR vaccine.
"This was incorrect," Rushbrooke told the court. McCafferty's lawyers had threatened to sue the firm, many years after it ceased to act for him, but no such proceedings have been issued.
At the time of the article Hodge Jones and Allen had told McCafferty's lawyers that any proceedings would be robustly defended, he went on, adding that the firm categorically rejected any suggestion that it was guilty of negligence, in particular the allegation that it pursued a case which it knew or should have known was hopeless, or that its lawyers improperly enriched themselves out of public funds.
Rushbrooke said that in 1998 Hodge Jones and Allen was granted legal aid funding for the purposes of investigating with experts a claim for damages on behalf of many children who were suffering from conditions such as autism following the administration of the MMR vaccine.
McCafferty instructed the firm in 2000 and had the benefit of these investigations.
The possibility of a causal link between MMR and autism was subsequently widely discredited, but at that time, and on the basis of the expert evidence then available, there was no reason to conclude that such claims were hopeless, Rushbrooke told the judge.
The article also said Hodge Jones and Allen had lost the file for McCafferty's case, and suggested that it failed to provide information his lawyers had requested.
"In fact the claimant had already provided a complete copy of all electronic documents on its case management system free of charge to Mr McCafferty's lawyers," he said.
"It has since managed to locate the original file of documents, and a copy of this has also been sent to those lawyers.
"Given the passage of time there was nothing untoward about the fact that the file could not be found initially."
Hodge Jones and Allen complained immediately about the article, but Times Newspapers Ltd denied liability and refused to remove it from its website, so the firm sued to vindicate its reputation, on the grounds that, among other things, the article meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect it was guilty of negligence and unjust enrichment in McCafferty's case.
Times Newspapers now accepted its error in publishing these false and damaging statements, and agreed to apologise publicly to Hodge Jones and Allen, and pay substantial damages and legal costs, Rushbrooke said.
Clara Hamer, for Times Newspapers, told the judge: "The Defendant does not have evidence which would establish that the allegations of which Hodge Jones and Allen has complained are true and wishes to apologise unreservedly for any damage caused to the Claimant or to its reputation by the article."