Newspapers welcome ruling on libel awards

NEWSPAPER lawyers have welcomed the Court of Appeal's new guidelines curbing jury awards in libel cases.

Three judges, the Master of the Rolls Sir Thomas Bingham and Lords Justice Hirst and Neill, last week ruled that judges and lawyers could suggest appropriate damages based on comparative levels of awards in personal injury cases.

Santha Rasaiah, senior lawyer of regional newspaper body the Newspaper Society, said: “At last explicit and sensible guidance can be given to juries which should introduce greater certainty into libel awards which we hope would induce more realistic expectations among plaintiffs.”

Arthur Davidson QC, Fleet Street Lawyers Society chair, said the guidelines were “an important step” which would “probably prevent some of the more outrageous and unjustifiable awards”.

Lord Justice Neill is already a reforming figure in defamation, having drafted proposals for change in 1991 which are largely embodied in the Lord Chancellor's defamation reform Bill.

The judges allowed an appeal by Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) against the £350,000 award to Elton John over allegations about his diet.

Central to MGN's appeal was in-house solicitor Martin Craddace's argument against the current jury award process. The judges picked up the argument “with enthusiasm”, said Craddace.

Plaintiff lawyers could be “enormously concerned”, said Craddace. Apart from advising clients that they could no longer win “untaxed riches”, lawyers could have to charge lower fees because lower levels of damages might not cover the difference between party/party costs and total costs, he said.

Leading libel litigator Anthony Julius, of Mishcon de Reya, dismissed this as “absurd” but welcomed the degree of certainty on awards for plaintiffs.

The mood in MGN's legal department was buoyant last week. “We knew something special was going to happen, and it did,” said Craddace.