Page last updated at 22:54 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Lord Martin defends no-win no-fee libel lawyers

Michael Martin
Michael Martin stood down as Commons Speaker last year

Former Commons Speaker Lord Martin has spoken up in defence of "no win, no fee" libel lawyers - whose fees the government is trying to curtail.

He spoke in a debate on plans to reduce "success fees" charged to defendants from 100% to 10% of the normal fee.

The lawyers gave people justice, and a law was needed instead which "insists on responsible journalism", he said.

Media groups say current laws force editors to avoid stories because of the risks of expensive libel action.

The government has introduced the plan in the form of a Statutory Order laid before Parliament - it says it is intended as an interim measure while wider libel reform is considered.

'Bile poured'

But Lord Martin introduced a "motion of regret" - effectively forcing a debate and allowing him to register his protest.

The crossbench peer - a former Labour MP who stepped down as Speaker last year in the furore over his handling of the expenses crisis - had repeatedly found himself criticised in the media over his attempts to stop MPs' receipts being published.

In 2007 it also emerged he spent more than £20,000 of taxpayers' money on lawyers to challenge negative press stories about him.

There are many men and women who are not in entertainment, who are not in public life, but somewhere along the line someone says something about them that they feel they should get justice and this system gives them justice
Lord Martin

In Thursday's debate Lord Martin complained about "the bile that was poured against me" adding: "I've never set foot in the Gorbals for about 30 years, but to them I was Gorbals Mick."

Lord Martin told peers national newspapers "specialise" in "attacks" on people adding: "If they want to save funds, if they don't want success fees to be paid, then why don't they get their facts right?"

He said when he was Speaker he called in libel lawyers to prevent a Sunday newspaper printing a story about him. He told peers he had been told about it late on a Friday night when he was in Glasgow and Commons officials were not in.

He contacted a firm of no win no fee lawyers the day after. "Credit to the company that I approached, I was able to get a partner on a mobile phone who was taking his son out to a football game on a Saturday afternoon and then he was on the case," Lord Martin said.

Low incomes

He said "no win, no fee" lawyers were prepared to be called out 24 hours a day.

"There are many men and women who are not in entertainment, who are not in public life, but somewhere along the line someone says something about them that they feel they should get justice and this system gives them justice."

His motion said there had not been "sufficient time for consultation with all of the professional and legal bodies concerned".

Governments have to be incredibly wary, incredibly careful about curtailing press freedom in any way
Lord Bach
Justice minister

And it pointed to the "benefit of no-win, no-fee arrangements for those on modest and low incomes".

Lawyers are currently able to double their fees under "no-win, no-fee" agreements by claiming the success fee of up to 100% on top of their normal fee, payable by the losing party. The government's order would reduce that to 10%.

Lord Martin withdrew his motion after receiving assurances that further consultation would be carried out.

Former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf also said it appeared not enough consultation had been done on the proposal and a former law lord, Lord Scott of Foscote, said that limiting the success fee to 10% would mean that barristers would have to win nine out of 10 cases to make their books balance. He called for the order to be withdrawn.

But crossbench peer and leading QC Lord Pannick said the present law prevented newspapers publishing stories about the rich and powerful. He added: "It is a deterrent whether the journalism is lazy or whether it is dedicated."

And for the government, Lord Bach said: "Governments have to be incredibly wary, incredibly careful about curtailing press freedom in any way.

"I might well share some of the views Lord Martin has about how some of the press conduct themselves but I have to resist, as I think we all do, the temptation sometimes to say: 'Gosh, I wish they weren't allowed to do this; I wish they weren't allowed to do that.'"

The order was passed without a vote and will be debated by a House of Commons committee on Monday.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Libel laws 'are mocking justice'
18 Jan 10 |  UK Politics
Speaker's legal costs criticised
11 Oct 07 |  UK Politics

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific