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Victory for press freedom

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

LIBEL LAWYERS will have their fees slashed by 90 per cent, the British justice secretary has ruled.

The decision is being hailed as a victory for press freedom.

Jack Straw yesterday announced that the success fees charged by lawyers who work on a 'no win, no fee' basis should be drastically cut.

Lawyers are currently allowed to double their fee - which is paid by the loser - if they win their case, but the proposal would allow them to add just 10 per cent to their costs.

Straw acted after the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee warned the huge cost of libel actions was having a "chilling effect" on investigative journalism.

crippling legal fees

The members of parliament (MPs) found that the risk of huge libel costs deterred newspaper editors from running stories and encouraged them to settle cases they might have been able to defend simply to avoid huge costs.

And scientists have been hit with crippling legal fees after making negative assessments of leading drugs firms and their products.

The move is also designed to deter so-called libel tourism, which has seen the rich and famous flock to London's libel courts to launch defamation actions.

The committee called the way British courts have been exploited by foreigners a "national humiliation".

The change in the rules will come into effect next month.

Straw said: "Reducing the success fees charged by lawyers in 'no win, no fee' defamation cases will help level the playing field so that scientists, journalists and writers can continue to publish articles which are in the public interest without incurring such.

"This is particularly important for ensuring open scientific exchange and protecting the future of our regional media, who have small budgets but play a large role in our democracy."

The government has not yet acted to implement other recommendations of the select committee. Ministers will respond to the MPs' other recommendations shortly.

Culture Committee chairman John Whittingdale said: "I hope the government will think hard about that. This is a positive development. The committee was left in no doubt that the huge costs were having a significant chilling effect on journalism in this country."

Tory Justice spokesman Dominic Grieve said: "Jack Straw has announced this policy on three separate occasions, so we welcome the fact that he is finally taking action.

"However, he now needs to look at the fees being charged in other 'no win, no fee' cases.

- Daily Mail, UK