Bankrupt former Tory MP Neil Hamilton has revealed that he instructed small crime and insolvency firm Harkavys on the current libel case after he could not afford to retain his usual libel firm. He still owes Crockers Oswald Hickson, which he first instructed in 1994, legal fees of around £400,000 from the 1999 libel trial he lost against Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. Crock-ers is now part of Farrer & Co
In an exclusive interview with The Lawyer, Hamilton said: “The commercial relationship with Crockers had to come to an end as the bankruptcy meant I could no longer retain their services. I couldn't impose on their generosity any further.”
Rupert Grey, Crockers' senior partner who led the team in the 1999 libel trial, said: “The fees [for the 1999 libel trial] came up to slightly over £1m, of which approximately £600,000 has already been paid off. The outstanding balance is covered by a mortgage over the [Hamiltons'] Old Rectory in Cheshire.”
But Hamilton and Grey remain the best of friends after terminating their commercial relationship. “I can't speak too highly of the support Rupert has given me,” said Hamilton.
Crockers merged with private client and charities firm Farrer & Co in June 2001. The merger was announced in May 2001, the same month Hamilton was declared bankrupt. Grey said that Crockers went to Farrers to build up and resource its intellectual property capacity (The Lawyer, 14 May 2001).
Grey is not at all worried about getting the money that Hamilton owes Crockers. The Hamiltons have put their house on the market for £1.25m. Crockers has been promised repayment after the house sale.
Harkavys would not reveal how it plans to bill the cash-strapped Hamiltons if they lose the libel trial.
Harkavys senior partner Howard Pinkerfield said: “I am unable to talk about our private billing arrangements with clients.”
Neil Hamilton's relationship with Harkavys began with a recommendation from fellow disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitken. Hamilton first instructed the firm to advise him on his impending insolvency. The four-partner crime, insolvency and commercial firm also acted for Aitken when he became bankrupt in May 1999.
Neil and Christine Hamilton retained Harkavys to advise them when they stood accused of sexually assaulting 28-year-old Nadine Milroy-Sloan at the beginning of August. The Hamiltons were cleared by police of any part in the sexual assault. Unusually for a predominantly criminal firm, Harkavys is the Hamiltons' main adviser in the current libel action they started against Milroy-Sloan after they were cleared of charges.
Harkavys also hit the headlines in 1998 for advising Princess Diana's former lover James Hewitt. In the same year, the firm was in the newspapers for representing the family that sued the J Sainsbury supermarket chain after finding a toad in their salad.
Harkavys managing partner Howard Pinkerfield said: “We're always happy to be associated with high-profile clients.”
Denton Wilde Sapte lawyers acting for Hamilton's trustee in bankruptcy, accountants Baker Tilly, are currently looking into the Hamiltons' funding of their current libel action.
Dentons partner Michael Steiner, who is acting for Baker Tilly, said: “I have been retained by the trustee. This [the current libel action] is one of the things we're investigating at the moment.”
Sole criminal law practitioner Henri Brandman, who is known for defending high-profile clients, said that some small firms do take on cash-strapped clients' libel claims. “It is now common for firms to take libel cases on a conditional-fee arrangement. This could apply to a client who had been declared bankrupt,” Brandman said.
Harkavys insolvency partner Michael Coleman, who last month represented the Hamiltons at the High Court in the first stage of their libel case, was unavailable for comment. But Hamilton is extremely impressed with Coleman as a libel solicitor. “Coleman is perfect for this case as he is extremely competent at dealing with the media. He is also very streetwise as he left school at 14 and clambered up the ladder. He's a tough cookie,” he said.
|Neil Hamilton: my life and the law|
“It seems that for years I've been single-handedly financing the profession,” said Hamilton.
|The Hamilton libel trials|
“I've never regarded high profile litigation as a recreation,” Hamilton told The Lawyer. However, he has been involved in long-running libel battles since 1984, with varying degrees of success.