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Lawyers from most of the country's major newspapers are proposing to stop barristers they instruct from acting against them in a move that has greatly unsettled the libel bar.
In-house lawyers from three of the four major tabloid groups and one broadsheet are proposing that barristers who act for them regularly should not act against them for a number of months after a case, with some suggesting that the libel bar should split along claimant/defendant lines.
Libel barristers are unsettled by the proposal because, they say, media work is drying up and most of them are not in a position to pick and choose between instructions.
It is believed that Associated Newspapers, Mirror Group Newspapers and Northern & Shell, publisher of Express Newspapers, are leading the charge to change the face of
Harvey Kass, Associated Newspapersthe libel bar. At News International, The Times is in favour of change but The Sun is not expressing a view.
It is estimated that there are less than 10 top QCs operating in the small world of defamation and privacy, and are often found acting for and against a newspaper at the same time.
Associated legal director Harvey Kass said: "This is a very important issue. Clients shouldn't feel inhibited when taking advice from counsel. Barristers we work with constantly profile the opposition when advising us. It can't be right for insights gained in advising us to be used against us."
Leading US media lawyers, who are split strictly along claimant/defendant lines, are lending strong support to this new initiative.
Victor Kovner, media partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, who represents many New York newspapers, said: "The relationship between publishers and counsel here is different. We don't allow counsel to act for and against a publisher. To say it's eyebrow-raising for us to see how things work in the UK is putting it lightly."