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Straw's libel fee cut scrapped

7 April 2010

Justice secretary Jack Straw’s plan to cut the success fees charged by libel lawyers in conditional fee cases from 100 to ten per cent has been dropped by the government.

Given the pressure of legislation in this week’s ‘wash-up’ as Parliament comes to an end before the general election, there is understood to be no more time left to force through the statutory instrument implementing the change.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said simply that Harriet Harman, the leader of the House of Commons, had “announced that the motion on the order paper is not being brought forward”.

MPs of all parties on the Commons delegated legislation committee considering the statutory instrument voted against the measure last week (see Solicitors Journal 154/13, 6 April 2010).

Labour MP Tom Watson led the revolt on the Labour-dominated committee, arguing that, without conditional fees, the courts would become the preserve of the rich and powerful. He was joined by shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham, who was concerned by the size of the cut, and Liberal Democrat justice minister David Howarth, who questioned whether the measure should apply to both privacy and libel actions.

The House of Lords had earlier backed the measure, despite strong opposition from Lords Woolf and Scott.

Lawyers for Media Standards, a new association of mainly claimant libel lawyers, threatened the MoJ with a judicial review over the issue, on the basis that the four-week consultation exercise was inadequate and unfair.

Jeremy Clarke-Williams, partner at Russell Jones & Walker and founder member of LMS, welcomed the decision not to press ahead with the success fee cut.

“They were trying to force this through with undue haste and without proper thought or time,” he said.

“The fact they were doing their best to steamroller it through made people sceptical about their motives.”

Clarke-Williams said that, since the measure had “dropped from the wash-up rack”, the judicial review was now “off the agenda”.

However, he said Lawyers for Media Standards was not a single issue association and would continue.

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