New practice tunes up with Bassey
24 February 1998
The recent county court action in which Shirley Bassey was accused of slapping her personal assistant, calling her a Jewish bitch and dismissing her in a drunken rage would have been a good high-profile case for any practice to handle.
For newly-formed practice, Stock Fraser Cukier, the case was important in establishing the firm as a force to be reckoned with. But, apart from the advantages of being involved in such a high-profile action, it draws important lessons both for the profession and for those who try to take celebrities to court, according to Gerard Cukier, the partner who handled the matter.
One of the significant aspects of the case was that Cukier did not succumb to the temptation to match the stature of his client with a fashionable silk. He went to Anthony Scrivener's chambers for counsel, but while some might have considered Scrivener the obvious choice to represent somebody as high-profile as Shirley Bassey, Cukier instructed Philip Kolvin, a junior he has instructed in other cases.
The case was heard at Brentford County Court before Judge Marcus Edwards. The singer's former personal assistant, Hilary Levy, claimed £7,650 in respect of lost wages and alleged breach of contract. After the case the singer went on record saying: "I have fought the case, regardless of cost, in order to defend my name and reputation and in order to protect my career, and as a point of principle."
Those words, says Cukier, should be heeded by anyone who intends to target the rich and the famous with court action. He says that this action and Bassey's statement proves that there are celebrities who are prepared to fight for their principles. He says that such people think the threat alone of legal action against those in the media spotlight will be enough to bring an offer of settlement whether the claims are justified or not in order to avoid adverse publicity.
"The Bassey case shows that while some people at this level of public life might be intimidated by the spectre of the publicity that will inevitably surround such an action and might be prepared to pay up quietly to avoid it, this reaction cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion," says Cukier.
"We knew from the outset that this case was going to attract massive publicity. But the message is clear. There are people, and Miss Bassey is one of them, who are prepared to put up with that sort of exposure for their principles."
Turning to his decision not to choose a big-name silk to represent the star, he says: "My aim was to treat this case on its merits. Although the personality at the centre of it is a big name, this was in essence a straightforward contract action to be tried by a judge, not a jury. I wanted counsel upon whom I could rely to run the case in an unflashy way. I wanted someone who would quickly gain the trust of the judge, and be able to expose the weaknesses in the plaintiff's case.
"I had used Philip Kolvin before, I knew his work and knew that he could handle a case of this nature. There was no need to go for a leading silk purely because the client was a star. In fact, I thought that it might have been counter-productive to do so," he says.
"When you instruct someone really well-known the opposition immediately knows what they are up against. By instructing a good junior you keep the opposition guessing about what it will be up against when they get into court."