'Generous' Crockers happy to wait for Hamilton's £400,000

Neil Hamilton tells The Lawyer why he opted for Harkavys; mystery still surrounds the funding of the couple's libel action

Bankrupt former Tory MP Neil Hamilton has revealed that he instructed small crime and insolvency firm Harkavys on the current libel case after he could not afford to retain his usual libel firm. He still owes Crockers Oswald Hickson, which he first instructed in 1994, legal fees of around £400,000 from the 1999 libel trial he lost against Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. Crock-ers is now part of Farrer & Co
In an exclusive interview with The Lawyer, Hamilton said: “The commercial relationship with Crockers had to come to an end as the bankruptcy meant I could no longer retain their services. I couldn't impose on their generosity any further.”
Rupert Grey, Crockers' senior partner who led the team in the 1999 libel trial, said: “The fees [for the 1999 libel trial] came up to slightly over £1m, of which approximately £600,000 has already been paid off. The outstanding balance is covered by a mortgage over the [Hamiltons'] Old Rectory in Cheshire.”
But Hamilton and Grey remain the best of friends after terminating their commercial relationship. “I can't speak too highly of the support Rupert has given me,” said Hamilton.
Crockers merged with private client and charities firm Farrer & Co in June 2001. The merger was announced in May 2001, the same month Hamilton was declared bankrupt. Grey said that Crockers went to Farrers to build up and resource its intellectual property capacity (The Lawyer, 14 May 2001).
Grey is not at all worried about getting the money that Hamilton owes Crockers. The Hamiltons have put their house on the market for £1.25m. Crockers has been promised repayment after the house sale.
Harkavys would not reveal how it plans to bill the cash-strapped Hamiltons if they lose the libel trial.
Harkavys senior partner Howard Pinkerfield said: “I am unable to talk about our private billing arrangements with clients.”
Neil Hamilton's relationship with Harkavys began with a recommendation from fellow disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitken. Hamilton first instructed the firm to advise him on his impending insolvency. The four-partner crime, insolvency and commercial firm also acted for Aitken when he became bankrupt in May 1999.
Neil and Christine Hamilton retained Harkavys to advise them when they stood accused of sexually assaulting 28-year-old Nadine Milroy-Sloan at the beginning of August. The Hamiltons were cleared by police of any part in the sexual assault. Unusually for a predominantly criminal firm, Harkavys is the Hamiltons' main adviser in the current libel action they started against Milroy-Sloan after they were cleared of charges.
Harkavys also hit the headlines in 1998 for advising Princess Diana's former lover James Hewitt. In the same year, the firm was in the newspapers for representing the family that sued the J Sainsbury supermarket chain after finding a toad in their salad.
Harkavys managing partner Howard Pinkerfield said: “We're always happy to be associated with high-profile clients.”
Denton Wilde Sapte lawyers acting for Hamilton's trustee in bankruptcy, accountants Baker Tilly, are currently looking into the Hamiltons' funding of their current libel action.
Dentons partner Michael Steiner, who is acting for Baker Tilly, said: “I have been retained by the trustee. This [the current libel action] is one of the things we're investigating at the moment.”
Sole criminal law practitioner Henri Brandman, who is known for defending high-profile clients, said that some small firms do take on cash-strapped clients' libel claims. “It is now common for firms to take libel cases on a conditional-fee arrangement. This could apply to a client who had been declared bankrupt,” Brandman said.
Harkavys insolvency partner Michael Coleman, who last month represented the Hamiltons at the High Court in the first stage of their libel case, was unavailable for comment. But Hamilton is extremely impressed with Coleman as a libel solicitor. “Coleman is perfect for this case as he is extremely competent at dealing with the media. He is also very streetwise as he left school at 14 and clambered up the ladder. He's a tough cookie,” he said.

Neil Hamilton: my life and the law

“It seems that for years I've been single-handedly financing the profession,” said Hamilton.
But money is not all that Hamilton has contributed to the legal profession, he told The Lawyer.
Hamilton is trained as a chancery and tax barrister. And although he never had a tenancy, he claims he has continued his legal career with regular pro bono work. “It is improbable I will return to the law – I am 52 after all – but I do advise people on a pro bono basis.”
Hamilton wants to continue his pro bono work by helping those in the situation he and Christine found themselves before they were cleared of sexual assault last month.
“I'm getting involved with various organisations that lobby on behalf of the falsely accused,” he said. He added that he would offer such organisations his legal services pro bono.
Hamilton acknowledges that his barrister's training helped him as a politician, although he also said: “My capacity for advocacy pre-dated my studies of the law.”
In the years Hamilton has spent in court he has shown some strong views on the UK justice system. For example, he would rather high-profile litigation, such as his own, were televised as in the US.
“Personally, I'm in favour of cases being shown to the public. The trial with [Mohamed] Al Fayed should have been televised. The jury made some perverse decisions and the public at large should have witnessed this,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also said that he would much prefer trial by judge alone or a professional jury. “I have lost faith in juries. At least when the judge sums up he gives a reason. I think that trial by judge alone is best,” he said. Hamilton added that juries are often “unsophisticated people dragged off the streets at random”.
Hamilton argues that his legal pro bono contributions, among other good works he and his wife Christine have done, have gone largely unnoticed by the public. “We are accused of being greedy. No one knows how much time we have spent helping people.”
One person Hamilton's sympathies do not seem to extend to is the late George Carman QC, who famously described him as “on the make and on the take”, and “a man with no honour left”.
Hamilton retaliated by telling The Guardian in 1999 that Carman's closing speech at the end of the Al Fayed trial was “so thin, he would make a fortune if he could bottle it as a slimming potion”.
But despite this seeming animosity between the two high-profile figures, Hamilton admitted that he thought Carman was “a phenomenon”. He added: “But I was pleased to note that he said I was one of his most difficult witnesses.”

The Hamilton libel trials

“I've never regarded high profile litigation as a recreation,” Hamilton told The Lawyer. However, he has been involved in long-running libel battles since 1984, with varying degrees of success.
Hamilton's first libel battle was a winner. In 1984 he issued a writ against BBC documentary programme Panorama after it alleged that he had a link with right-wing extremists. Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners advised him. The battle went on until 1986, when the BBC awarded him damages of £40,000 after it admitted to the High Court that the allegations were false.
In 1994, the mammoth cash for questions scandal unfolded. In October 1994, The Guardian printed a story reporting that Hamilton had taken cash from Mohamed Al Fayed, through lobbyist Ian Greer, to ask questions in the House of Commons. Five days later, Hamilton and Greer issued a writ for libel.
It was at this point that Hamilton first instructed Crockers as Peter Carter-Ruck was conflicted out. It was a recommendation from Peter Carter-Ruck that led to Hamilton instructing Crockers. But in September 1996, the libel action against The Guardian was dropped.
On 16 January 1998, Channel 4 screened a programme named A Question of Sleaze which featured an interview with Al Fayed. Hamilton issued a libel writ against Channel 4, Al Fayed and Fulcrum Productions the very same day.
The libel trial began in November 1999 with Crockers advising Hamilton. Desmond Browne QC of 5 Raymond Buildings, who Hamilton says “has a brilliant grasp of technical legal questions”, acted for him. Al Fayed instructed George Carman QC and was advised by DJ Freeman. Hamilton lost the case on 21 December 1999. Hamilton still owes Al Fayed £1.4m for DJ Freeman's costs.
On 29 August 2001, Harkavys partner Michael Coleman represented the Hamiltons in the High Court to start the current libel action. The couple issued a writ against Nadine Milroy-Sloan after allegations that they had sexually assaulted her were dropped. The case continues.