Once considered to be a bastion of British justice, it appears that trial by jury in libel cases has fallen out of vogue and could soon be stopped altogether.
Earlier this year Lord Justice Jackson in his review of civil litigation costs said jury trials contributed to disproportionate costs in libel cases and recommended that they be abandoned.
This was supported by Liberal Democrat MP and Blackstone Chambers silk Lord Lester QC, who last month proposed through his private member’s Defamation Bill that libel jury trials should be scrapped altogether.
Before Lester’s bill has even been debated in Westminster, one case working its way to the High Court could put the issue of jury trials back at the top of the media litigation agenda.
On Friday (28 May) Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that a jury trial would not be needed in the case of Matthew Fiddes v Channel Four, Studio Lambert and Jane Preston.
To recap: M Law partner Chris Hutchings instructed Ron Thwaites QC of Ely Place to pursue the defendants for damages because, he claimed, they libelled his client Matthew Fiddes during the airing of a documentary about the Jackson family.
The documentary, which was named The Jacksons are Coming and was first aired in November 2008, followed late pop star Michael Jackson’s brother Tito and his entourage when they stayed in North Devon for five weeks as they apparently looked for a home in the area.
Fiddes, who had known the Jacksons for a number of years, took part in the show but is claiming that he was misrepresented, with the programme suggesting that he tipped the press off about the Jacksons’ whereabouts for personal gain.
The case has been scheduled for a 20-day High Court hearing from 14 June, but last week Channel Four’s barrister Adrienne Page QC argued that it should be decided by Tugendhat J rather than a jury.
The lengthy and complex nature of the trial, she argued, meant that it would be more suitable to be heard by a judge with expert knowledge of libel laws than a lay jury. There would be 12 hours of footage to examine, re-examine and cross examine, complex witness statements, and prolonged examination of at least some documents, Page said.
Thwaites countered that as the trial would examine whether the viewing public had been deceived by the defendants it would be more appropriate to be decided by a jury made up of the viewing public.
Page, however, told the court it should consider the impact of legal costs on the parties.
In his ruling Tugendhat J accepted: “Costs are now acknowledged to present a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Ruling in favour of the defendant, the High Court judge stated: “Vast as they are, these costs are, I’m afraid, not untypical of libel litigation. Not many cases get to trial […] and when they do get to trial, the costs are enormous. Here it is in excess of £3m.
“Nevertheless, if there are savings in costs to be made, even at this late stage, they can be made.”
The jury, he ruled, should be disposed of.
It is understood the claimant will appeal the ruling in the next few days with the hope that Lord Justice Sedley, a judge who is thought to favour jury trials, will preside in the Court of Appeal.
Yet with pressure on the judiciary to show they are taking steps to drive down rising costs this could be one way of making inroads. It will be up to those in favour of jury trials to demonstrate how removing juries could hamper access to justice.