Bar Council clears libel lawyer of misconduct

John Malpas reports

A LEADING libel lawyer has been cleared by the Bar Council following a plaintiff's charge that he pursued an unmeritorious action against him to earn a fee.

The Bar Council's professional conduct committee dismissed the complaint against James Price QC after deciding that there was no evidence of professional misconduct over his involvement in the libel action pursued against journalist Peter Cotterell.

The details of Cotterell's complaint against Price first emerged in April when he publicised his case against the barrister. Price chose not to comment at the time but now that he has been cleared by the Bar Council he has stressed the particular vulnerability of barristers to complaints from unhappy litigants. "That is why the law has placed restrictions on the ability of litigants to re-litigate their suit in the form of a negligence action against the advocates involved."

The complaint was levelled against Price, of Patrick Milmo QC's 5 Raymond Buildings, when Cotterell revealed he was pursuing complaints against Price and Macfarlanes.

Price acted as counsel for the exhibition organisers Blenheim Group in its action against Cotterell, who runs the National Exhibitors Association and publishes news sheets for its members. Macfarlanes acts for Blenheim.

Blenheim had issued a writ against Cotterell after he advised his readers that money paid to Blenheim was at risk because of a fall in the price of their shares. Cotterell issued a fair comment defence and Blenheim discontinued the case eight months later agreeing to pay £8,500 in costs.

In his submission to the Bar Council's professional conduct committee, Price argued that Cotterell's defence of fair comment would have failed on "multiple grounds".

He said he did not recall being involved in the discussions which led to the case being discontinued but among the factors which influenced the decision was the fact "Blenheim's trial costs would have exceeded, probably by a considerable margin, the costs Mr Cotterell was asking to be paid, and were expected to be irrecoverable in any event."

He added: "Mr Cotterell suggested that I trumped up a case to earn a fee, to which the short answer is that is not the way to build or retain a professional law practice."

Cotterell said he would now take his complaint to the Legal Services Ombudsman who has already rejected his complaint against Macfarlanes after the firm was vindicated by the Solicitors Complaints Bureau.

He stands by his original claim that his advice to his readers was fair comment and says that he would be quite prepared to repeat it. "If I was wrong, why didn't they take me to court for it?" he asked.