Massive legal fees the Daily Mirror had to pay after losing a court battle with model Naomi Campbell were “disproportionate” and a breach of the newspaper’s right to “freedom of expression”, human rights judges have ruled.
The Mirror was ordered by British courts to pay Ms Campbell £3,500 in compensation for beaching her privacy by publishing “offensive and distressing” pictures, as well as articles revealing her treatment for drug addiction.
But Ms Campbell’s legal costs, which the paper also had to pay, amounted to more than £1 million – including “success fees” of more than £365,000 agreed between the model and her lawyers.
The ruling in the European Court of Human Rights was against the UK Government, which sanctioned the “success fee” formula in which lawyers in “no win no fee” civil cases stand to gain hefty bonuses against the losing defendants.
A Government review of the arrangement is already under way, with a recommendation in the pipeline that lawyers in future should not get a “success fee” but a share of any damages awarded to the successful defendant. In the Campbell case that would have meant a portion of £3,500 – a fraction of the final payment the Mirror faced.
The Mirror complained to the Human Rights court that the privacy verdict in favour of Ms Campbell, as well as the amount of legal fees it had to pay, breached the paper’s right to “freedom of expression”, safeguarded by the Human Rights Convention. But the Strasbourg judges rejected that claim, saying a balance had to be struck between “the public interest in the publication of the articles and photographs of Ms Campbell, and the need to protect her private life”.
The ruling continued: “Given that the sole purpose of the publication of the photographs and articles had been to satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership about the details of a public figure’s private life, those publications had not contributed to any debate of general interest to society.”
There was, therefore, a lower level of protection of freedom of expression for the newspaper, and the UK courts had correctly backed Ms Campbell’s claim for breach of her right to respect for her private life. But on the “success fees”, the Human Rights judges said the requirement to pay them was based on a UK law which had been designed to ensure the widest possible public access to legal services in civil cases, including to people who would not otherwise be able to afford a lawyer.
That did not apply to Ms Campbell, who was wealthy and therefore not lacking access to court on financial grounds. She was not the kind of person for whom the “success fees” scheme had been initially set up, and the judges said the UK Ministry of Justice had already acknowledged that the costs burden had become excessive and that “the balance had swung too far in favour of claimants and against the interests of defendants, particularly in defamation and privacy cases”.
There was a risk to media reporting and freedom of expression, the verdict said, if the potential costs of defending a case risked putting pressure on the media and newspaper publishers to settle cases which could have been defended. Therefore, the judges concluded, “the requirement on Mirror Group Newspapers to pay the ‘success fees’, which had been agreed by Ms Campbell and her solicitors, was disproportionate to the aim sought to be achieved by the introduction of the ‘success fee’ system.”