Bringing order to libel awards

Princess Diana, David Mellor, Monica Bauwens, Esther Ranzen, Graham Souness – the case book of solicitor Martin Cruddace reads like a celebrity's Who's Who.

However, Cruddace has never represented any of them. Instead he has been on the defence side of High Court actions brought against Mirror Group Newspapers.

In the five and a half years since he joined the MGN legal department in July 1990, Cruddace has played an increasingly high profile role in media law battles involving Mirror Group papers and is a veteran of over 100 High Court skirmishes. But the latest victory of the man who says he is not a solicitor who sits back and lets counsel get on with things is his finest hour to date.

Cruddace played a key role in the recent MGN action which led to the Court of Appeal, headed by the Master of the Rolls, slashing a 1993 libel award to Elton John from £350,000 to £75,000 over a story in the Sunday Mirror. The story claimed the pop star was on a diet which required he chewed food and then spit it out rather than swallow it.

The massive cut in damages more than justified Cruddace's determination to take the case to appeal. But more important, the case generated guidelines from the appeal judges which look set to end the unrealistic libel awards of the past.

The guidelines allow a libel jury reference to previous awards made or approved by the Court of Appeal and to have its attention drawn to the level of awards in personal injury actions. The guidelines also allow lawyers to suggest brackets for damages which they consider appropriate (see page 12 for full analysis).

Cruddace admitted: "I did not realise they would go as far as they did, although I always thought they should and hoped they would. We had tried in past appeals to get the go-ahead for comparisons to be drawn with personal injury cases."

The case has torn up the wild card which allowed juries free reign in choosing libel damages. Now, says Cruddace, although juries still retain the right to ignore the guidance they are given and can still make massive awards there is little chance of such awards being upheld on appeal.

He believes that in the light of the new guidelines there is a need for a new approach towards the structure of libel actions. He says there should be no mention of compensation until a jury has decided liability, at which stage lawyers should be allowed to use their new-found freedom to guide the jury on an award.

On a personal note Cruddace, who joined MGN from the commercial litigation department of Masons, says one of the worst aspects of this case was his predicament once he had read the judgment.

He was looking at what he admits was "without doubt the high spot of my career". But in accordance with normal procedures as a lawyer, he had been given the judgment the night before it was made public on the understanding he would not divulge its contents to the lay clients, even though in this case they were his employers.

He said: "I have always considered I must be seen as being squeaky clean in my role, so I always adhere to the rules rigidly. But keeping quiet about what had been achieved in this case until the court had officially released the judgment was not easy."