Time’s up for Fleet Street legal stalwart

After more than 30 years as a lawyer for The Times, Alastair Brett left this month. Katy Dowell looks back at a glittering career and conjectures on why it all ended so abruptly

The gossipmongers work hard in Fleet Street, so when news that The Times’ most senior lawyer Alastair Brett had left the paper abruptly on Friday 16 July, it did not take long for his peers to speculate that he had been asked to leave.

Brett has been a stalwart of The Times and The ­Sunday Times legal group for 33 years. He is part of the old-school set of newspaper lawyers that includes The Telegraph’s Arthur Wynn-Davies, who is ­working towards retirement after 33 years with the paper (The Lawyer, 7 June).

The Times’ lawyer was and still is a prominent member of the Fleet Street Lawyers’ Society. He has contributed to various debates affecting the press, none less so than the Freedom of Information Act and the never-ending discussions around the state of the UK’s libel laws.

According to one well-placed source, Brett was told on 16 July that his services were no longer required. Accordingly, he packed up his belongings and jumped on a plane.

The fact that this came just days after The Times lost a significant case in the Court of Appeal has prompted speculation that Brett had worn out the patience of his superiors by fighting one test case too many.

Last week (13 July) the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the libel case brought by Detective Sergeant Flood against The Times. The case ­provides some clarification on the Reynolds defence, although not the type of clarification welcomed by newspaper lawyers.

Here is the story so far. In June 2006 The Times published a story about Flood, alleging that he had sold information to Russian ­oligarchs about extradition requests. The policeman had previously been investigated by the Metropolitan Police, but no charges were brought before the story was published online and in the paper.

Flood sued for libel and The Times invoked the Reynolds defence, which had been established in another case fought by The Times, led by the then head of The Times’ legal department, and enshrined in law in 1999.

The Reynolds defence, which was created around 10 years ago, permits ­publishers to escape ­liability for publishing false and defamatory material if they can persuade the court that it constituted “responsible journalism”.

At the original trial last October, Mr Justice Tugendhat held that the Reynolds defence could have been invoked prior to Flood being investigated and exonerated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but that ­thereafter the online edition should have been amended to reflect the facts.

Both The Times, led by Brett, and Flood appealed the ruling.

What happened next, comments one source, was a “spectacular own goal for The Times”.

Presiding over the case in the Court of Appeal the Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger ruled that Tugendhat J was right to say the online version should have been amended.

However, he ruled against the newspaper on the issue of privilege.

Neuberger MR concluded: “Of course, it will add something to the substance and newsworthiness of the story that the police are investigating the claimant, but it seems to me that it would be tipping the scales too far in favour of the media to hold that, not only the name of the claimant, but the details of the ­allegations against him, can normally be published as part of a story.”

Now newspaper lawyers are up in arms because, they argue, the scales of justice have been tipped away from them, putting power into the hands of the claimants.

The case is expected to cost the newspaper more than £1m.

It may not be the high point of his long career, but it is worth remembering that Brett has done a lot to ­service free speech in the UK.

Calls to The Times for comment were not returned.