When the judge shoots back

Roger Pearson examines a case where critical reporting led to a judge explaining his decisions in a national newspaper

MEDIA interest in a court case is an occupational hazard for the profession. But it has seldom resulted, as it did in the civil action decided recently at Nottingham Crown Court, in a High Court judge writing to a national daily newspaper to explain his actions.

Mr Justice Rougier explained his actions after widespread media criticism of his decision to award u4,000 compensation to a burglar shot by the owner of the premises he was apparently attempting to break into.

The case, in which damages to 28-year-old Mark Revill were awarded against 82-year-old retired miner, Ted Newbery, caused a public furore. A support fund was started to help Newbery – who had waited in his allotment shed and blindly fired a shotgun through a hole in the door when he heard the would-be raider outside – pay the money.

The judge, explaining his actions in his letter to The Times, said the "cream of the jest" was the fact that Newbery was in fact insured.

The charitable donations, he said in a later phone interview, would have to be repaid unless those who gave them wished to pass them on to the insurers.

The case highlighted the impact uninformed media coverage can have. The judge, who had been informed at the beginning of the three-day hearing that it was an insurance claim, assessed total damages at u11,000 for injuries, u1,000 for hardship on the labour market and a further u100 for medical expenses.

However, he reduced the total amount payable to Revill, who he said could have been killed in the incident, to u4,033 on the basis of Revill's contributory negligence.

Solicitor Nigel Chappell, who has a general practice with the Derbyshire firm of Miles & Cash, says he and Nottingham based counsel, Jeremy Lea, had believed from the outset that the claim was a "meritorious" one and that the final result fully justified that belief.

"The injuries inflicted were disproportionate to the threat and I always felt it was a case well worth running," he said. "We always knew there would be a very high element of contributory negligence, though."

He says that it was similar to any other personal injury claim apart from the emotive element which caused its high profile. "It was an interesting and very stimulating case but not an extraordinary one," he says.

The level of media attention, however, took him by surprise and generated at short notice a high and potentially disruptive workload.

"We knew it would create a few waves of local interest because the matter had received past coverage locally," says Chappell.

"We really hadn't expected the national exposure that it generated, though. I'm certainly not a solicitor who generally courts publicity. I don't usually have the time.

"However, we had little choice. We had to deal with media enquiries and I felt constrained to contact some papers and put the record straight, after reports that Mr Newbery was having to pay the damages out of his own pocket. It was made clear from the beginning of the case that was not so and it was an insurance matter."

The possibility of an appeal is under consideration. Newbery was represented by counsel Brian Escott-Cox QC, who was instructed by the Ilkestone firm of Walter Scott & Ross.