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Lord Lester attacks libel fee "scandal"

29 June 2010

Urgent action must be taken to tackle the abuses created by ‘no win, no fee’ defamation fees, Lord Lester has said.

Speaking in the House of Lords last week, the Liberal Democrat peer asked whether the government intended to use section 58(4)(a) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 to cap the maximum success fees chargeable under a conditional fee agreement in defamation proceedings.

Calling for the return of former justice secretary Jack Straw’s plans, Lord Lester said: “I urge the minister and his colleagues not to wait for consideration of the vast Jackson report before taking urgent action to deal with what I think is a scandal, where some fellow members of my profession charge inordinate fees through the conditional fee agreement so that the costs far outweigh any damages that NGOs, individuals or the press may have to pay. That is a very urgent matter.”

Jack Straw had tried to push through legislation to slice 90 per cent off the success fees which could be claimed in libel actions, but the measure was thrown out at committee stage.

Liberal Democrat justice minister Lord McNally agreed that urgent action was needed, stating: “This defamation area produces great scandals. We have to get the balance right between the access to justice that conditional fees give and some of the anomalies and, indeed, abuses that have grown up in practice. We will do so after consideration of Jackson, but with all due urgency.”

Labour’s Lord Bach agreed with Lord Lester that the government should not wait for Jackson.

The debate followed the announcement that Michael Jackson’s former bodyguard was dropping his defamation battle with Channel 4 after it was ruled it would be heard by a judge alone because of no win, no fee cost concerns.

On the eve of the opening day in Fiddes v Channel 4, MLaw, representing the claimant, announced it was withdrawing the libel action partly because a jury would have been “better suited” to a mass-market television case than a High Court judge.

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