The landmark Court of Appeal tobacco judgment marks a “watershed” for freedom of speech, as well as paving the way for a multi-party action against two tobacco companies, say lawyers.
In Thursday's judgment, the Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf, Lord Justice Aldous and Lord Justice Chadwick ruled conditional fee agreements could not amount to “maintenance”, an ancient tort whereby solicitors who are seen to be illegally meddling in defendants' affairs may incur liability for costs.
This frees Leigh Day & Co and Irwin Mitchell from responsibility for up to £20m costs, allowing them to continue their action on behalf of the 43 lung cancer victims who are suing Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher.
In a second decision, the court overturned Mr Justice Popplewell's October gagging order preventing the litigants and their advisers from speaking to the press about the case, and ordered that chambers' hearing should be open to the public.
Lord Woolf said: “The best way of avoiding ill-informed comments in the media when the public interest is high, is for the court to be as open as is possible and practicable, not only in relation to the trial but also in relation to the interlocutory proceedings which have to take place prior to that trial.”
Media specialist Mark Stephens, of Stephens Innocent, said this aspect of the judgment was a “watershed decision” for freedom of speech.
Leigh Day & Co senior partner Martyn Day said it showed an “overriding concern for openness and the right of the general public to gain information”.
He added he had been inundated by calls from solicitors “up and down the country”, worried the conditional fees ruling might jeopardise future conditional fee funding.
The tobacco companies have been ordered to pay a quarter of the costs of the appeal.