High Court caps 'plebgate' libel budget to court fees for Andrew Mitchell MP
7 August 2013 | By Katy Dowell
The High Court has told the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell MP that the cost of his libel action against The Sun will be restricted to the cost of the court fees for the claim.
Atkins Thomson partner Graham Atkins was instructed to launch the case against The Sun publishers New Group Newspapers in March. This came after the tabloid last September splashed claims that Mitchell had sworn at a police officer at the gates to Downing Street across its front page.
In June, the parties were called to a case management conference, they were also told to file a costs budget to the court at least seven days ahead of the hearing. However, the court found Mitchell to be in breach of the order when his advisors failed to provide the papers and imposed the sanction.
As a result the court said Mitchell “would be limited to a budget consisting of the applicable court fees for his claim”.
According to media lawyers, this would cover the cost of filing the claim and any other courts fees, which could be up to £2,000.
Former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas spent £500,000 on his successful libel case against Sunday Times in which judgment was handed down last week (31 July 2013).
While 5RB’s David Sherborne is instructed to lead the libel case for Mitchell, Atkins turned instead to costs specialist Simon Browne QC of Temple Garden Chambers to lead the costs challenge.
Last week Master McCloud refused to lift the order, stating that all parties are under an obligation to abide by the regime as set down by Lord Justice Jackson and implemented on 1 April.
According to one media lawyer it could mean that the politician is left with no budget to spend on legal representation.
The judge said: “There is no evidence before me of particular prejudice to Mr Mitchell arising from my order: it would be for him to demonstrate that and it would be wrong of me to make assumptions about the wording of his CFA agreement with his solicitors which may or may not mean that my sanction affects him financially or in terms of legal representation.
“Even if it did affect him financially and as to representation, there are many claimants who manage without lawyers and it could not be said that he would be denied access to a court more than is the case for others if they have to represent themselves.”
Browne had attempted to persuade the court that it should be lenient toward the claimant lawyers. He told the court that Atkins Thomson is a two partner firm compared with heavyweights Simons Muirhead & Burton, which is instructed for NGN.
Two of three trainees at the firm were on maternity leave and a senior associate, who would normally deal with such issues, had recently left the firm, the court heard. Furthermore, the second partner, Mark Thomson, is currently leading a raft of phone hacking claims against News International.
Whilst sympathising the judge refused to budge. Her ruling provides the basis for the libel costs budgeting regime going forward.
She highlighted: “Budgeting is something which all solicitors by now ought to know is intended to be integral to the process from the start, and it ought not to be especially onerous to prepare a final budget for a CMC even at relatively short notice if proper planning has been done.”
Another media lawyer said while it may appear to be a “draconian” measure the court was making every effort to reduce the burden that costs can have on parties.
The ruling stated: “The court must now, as part of dealing with cases justly, ensure that cases are deal with at proportionate cost and so as to ensure compliance with rules, orders and practice directions.”
It continued: “In that sense what we now mean by ‘dealing with cases justly’ has changed, or if it has not changed then at the very least there is a significant shift of emphasis towards treating the wider effectiveness of court management and resources as a part of justice itself.”
It will be a significant win for NGN, which instructed Simons Muirhead partner Louis Charalambous with barrister Roger Mallelieu of 4 New Square leading the defence.
The case is now expected to proceed to the Court of Appeal.
For more on the budgeting regime and how it is impacting this dispute read our litigation blog: How The Sun is helping shape the Jackson era