Wilhelm Popp talks to defamation lawyer Geraldine Proudler about her recent victory over former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken. Wilhelm Popp is a freelance journalist.
THE FEELGOOD factor is running high at Covent Garden firm Olswang this week following its extraordinary victory, acting for The Guardian, over former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken, who last month dramatically withdrew his legal action against the newspaper and Granada Television.
Head of defamation at Olswang Geraldine Proudler says that newspapers around the country have been on the telephone to congratulate her on the victory and share in the goodwill that the case has generated.
"Clearly this is very good news for the firm," Proudler said shortly after the case. "This firm is well known for its defamation work and we have had phone calls from papers offering congratulations. The feelgood factor is quite high."
Proudler was speaking during the unexpected lull in activity for her after the case; it had been allotted eight to 10 weeks in the High Court, but ended abruptly and spectacularly after only two weeks when Aitken dropped the case and agreed to pay 80 per cent of the two defendants' costs.
She says that she was unsure how the case would go but felt "elated" when she delivered the crucial statement – which came from an employee of the security and investigation division of British Airways – to the court, proving that Mrs Aitken was not in Paris to pay the pivotal Ritz Hotel bill.
"She was here in our Long Acre offices giving her statement," says Proudler. "We had it typed up and I personally took it to the court."
Copies of the documents were given to the judge and both legal teams. It was when Aitken read the damning evidence just before 4pm that his case fell apart before his eyes.
"It was the final nail in the coffin," Proudler says. "It proved that he had lied on oath to the judge. The whole story about his wife being in Paris was false. He looked shocked."
As Olswang's primary libel solicitor, Proudler put together a formidable team to fight the case. Two full-time assistants were assigned to gather vital information and subpoena clients to verify information as the complex series of claims that Aitken had made were slowly revealed.
And it was on Proudler's recommendation that a Guardian journalist spent three days digging through mounds of documents in the basement of the now-closed Hotel Bristol in Villars, Switzerland, to prove that Mrs Aitken was a guest there for the duration of the weekend in September 1993 and not in Paris as she had claimed.
When the case came to court, Proudler had three barristers, George Carman QC, James Price QC and Alex Marzec representing her client. The team was led by Carman, who has established himself as one of the leading libel barristers in the country.
Commenting on Carman's role, Proudler said the case depended on Aitken's testimony and Carman was the ideal candidate to see through his elaborate cover-up.
"The outcome of the case was going to depend on the cross-examination of Aitken and Carman is the best in the business," she says.
"He has the ability to get to the truth with a witness in the box and to draw the witness out to make a series of admissions which, when put together, are damaging."
According to Proudler, the admissions that Aitken made and the web of deceit he wove around himself were astonishing. "He has totally disgraced himself and it was all his own doing," she says. "He chose to sue The Guardian and Granada, he chose to go to trial and he built an elaborate story that he could not sustain. It is a classic case of self-inflicted injury."
Proudler says the case has taught her not to accept anything at face value and to keep digging for evidence no matter how complex or hidden the trail may be. She believes Aitken never expected so much effort would be put into digging through his story and it was this that led to his downfall.
"[Aitken] was a cabinet minister, a Privy Councillor and a member of parliament and we now know that he was lying throughout the case," she says.
"This underlies the importance of lawyers probing and questioning all the evidence and not accepting anything at face value."
As the British Airways flight coupons showed, subpoenaing third parties for evidence can be crucial to victory.
"Don't just rely on clients for evidence," Proudler advises. "Consider what other evidence there might be and don't overlook the importance of subpoenas for evidence and documents from other sources."
The case also has wider implications for the British legal system, particularly with regard to a plaintiff's right to be heard by a judge alone.
According to Proudler, although originally listed to be heard before a jury, Aitken was able to argue that the volume of paperwork would overwhelm a jury thereby prolonging the trial and increasing its cost.
Proudler concedes that the case was document-heavy, but adds that the well-known Lord Aldington case involved at least twice as many documents and was successfully tried by a jury. The Aitken case is a precedent that she hopes will be regarded as an aberration rather than the norm.
"The trial judge and then the Court of Appeal ruled that it was appropriate for the case to be heard by a judge alone," she says. "This is an inappropriate precedent as it could mean that in future if anyone has anything to hide from the public they will try to make the case complex and document-heavy so that it will have to be heard by a judge rather than a jury."
As to why Aitken chose this course of action, Proudler speculates that given the recent Conservative defeat at the general election, he may have felt that a jury would be less sympathetic towards him, especially as he lost his seat.
The police have now begun to investigate possible charges against Aitken for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
For the time being, Proudler is content to bask in the glory the victory has brought the firm and is hopeful of further such successes in the future.