From first hand experience

Prominent lawyer Stephen Jakobi is no stranger to litigation. As a one time member of the London Solicitors Litigation Association and the Law Society's Litigation Committee he knows the pitfalls of heading to the courts better than most.

Today, however, he has added reason to advise against any courtroom confrontation. He has just been involved in an eleventh hour settlement of major libel litigation in which he was the plaintiff.

It resulted from a professional slur which he says left him no alternative but to head for court. But he is the first to admit it was a nightmare.

His experience has led to his joining the growing numbers calling for a shake-up in defamation procedures to make them more accessible to those who say their reputations have been blackened.

Jakobi, retired from his role as senior partner at City-based Jakobi & Co 18 months ago, has been in private practice since 1969 and was a senior partner at London firm Alan Jay & Co for over 20 years.

He was on the panel of the London Area Legal Aid Committee, Law Society representative on the joint-committee of the Law Society and Court of Protection, and honorary editor of the International Legal Forum magazine.

In 1992 Jakobi also founded the Fair Trials Abroad movement, which recently applied for charitable trust status, and today is its full-time director and legal representative.

However, in 1991 he says he was forced to hit the High Court libel trail, prompted by claims in The Observer which cast a major slur on his professional reputation.

At the time he was fighting to free Karyn Smith, the English woman then facing potential death penalty drug charges in Thailand.

But, The Observer ran a story open to interpretation that he had misappropriated funds raised for Smith's benefit and that he was purporting to act for her without instructions.

The curtain fell on Jakobi's libel action three weeks ago, over three years since the story was originally published.

Solicitor Julie Scott-Bayfield told Mr Justice Drake in an open court statement read out in the High Court that the publishers of The Observer had agreed to pay damages and costs to Jakobi and also agreed to apologise.

For Jakobi it was a satisfactory conclusion, but it is the end of a road he wishes he had never had to take and which he believes others should not be forced to take.

He criticises what he brands the "fiercely gladiatorial" procedures and "little understood esoteric rules" that come into play in a heavyweight piece of libel litigation such as his.

"From the outset it was obvious that the case would be prohibitively expensive to fight and that even if I attempted to run it myself I would be left with little or no time to do anything else," he says.

"My experiences have left me in no doubt of the need to establish a simplified form of libel action that can be taken in a County Court for the sole purpose of vindicating a professional reputation.

"The system screams for a change so that ordinary people can get redress for something which has unjustifiably damaged their reputation. They should not have to resort to the sort of steps which I had to take," he continues.

"A damaged reputation is best solved by an official public apology making it clear that what happened was wrong and not by damages.

"In my case I had no choice but to take the action I did. It's hard to think of anything more damaging to say about a solicitor than that he acted without instructions and had been taking his client's money."

An added complication for Jakobi was that much of the evidence necessary to prove the inaccuracy of the allegations against him was protected by solicitor/client privilege between him and Smith.

Because of Smith's own predicament, gaining consent to use such information provided a further stumbling block for Jakobi's legal team.

Setting aside this particular difficulty, Jakobi concludes: "The system must be overhauled."