Sally Dowler says if the proposed changes were already in place the family would not have been able to afford make a claim against the News of the WorldCredit: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Claimants and defendants who fought libel and phone hacking cases have signed a joint letter condemning proposed reforms of "no win no fee" Conditional Fee Arrangements, without which they say they would not have been able to take action.
According to the Hacked Off campaign, which organised the joint letter, in its current form the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill would mean that even if claimants win a case they will still be liable for "thousands of pounds in insurance costs" which would not be recoverable from defendants.
Director of the Media Standards Trust Martin Moore said in a release that the planned reforms "would effectively prevent ordinary people from getting access to the courts in defamation and privacy cases".
"That would be a serious step backwards and lead to greater inequality of arms and injustice," he said.
The 11 signatories to the letter include Christopher Jefferies, who in July was awarded "substantial damages" and a public apology from eight national newspapers over their coverage of his arrest in connection with the murder of Bristol architect Joanna Yeates. Following his arrest he was released without charge.
The family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who earlier this month received £2 million in compensation from News International, also signed the letter. The Dowler family sued the company after it was reported by the Guardian that Milly's voicemail had been accessed by the News of the World while she was missing.
"At the outset we made clear that if we had to pay the lawyers we could not afford to bring a claim or if we had any risk of having to pay the other side's costs we couldn't take the chance," Sally Dowler said in the release.
"If the proposed changes would have been in place at that time we would not have made a claim. Simple as that, the News of the World would have won because we could not afford to take them on."
The Hacked Off campaign calls for support for amendments to the bill, tabled by MP Tom Brake, which would exclude privacy and defamation cases from the proposed CFA reforms and "any proceedings arising out of the same cause of action".
In a previous submission to the Jackson Review earlier this year the Media Standards Trust said it supports the reform of CFAs as proposed by Razi Mireskandari: "namely that there be an automatic costs cap, that hourly rates for fee earners should be agreed across the board, and that the CFA success fee should be staged and rise to a maximum of 50 per cent of base costs if the case goes to trial".
The bill, which is currently in report stage, is due to be debated in the House of Commons later today.
The letter in full:
We are all ordinary citizens who found ourselves in a position of needing to obtain justice by taking or defending civil claims against powerful corporations or wealthy individuals. We would not have been a position to do this without recourse to a "no win no fee" agreement with a lawyer willing to represent us on that basis. As was made clear to each of us at the beginning of our cases, we were liable for tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds if we lost. Without access to a Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA), which protected us from this risk, we would not have been able even to embark on the legal journey.
We would like to voice our dismay at the CFA reform proposals in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which effectively remove the opportunity of people of ordinary means to seek redress when they have been libelled or intruded upon, or where they need to defend a libel claim. We do not believe this is fair or just.
While there is case for amending the way they function in practice, the current drafting of the bill will deny access to justice to people like us in the future. Tom Brake MP has tabled an amendment this week which would exclude privacy and defamation cases from the proposed CFA reforms with no extra cost to the public purse, and we call upon MPs to support that call and for the Government to discuss with those of us who have been through this experience how access to justice can be preserved for those who come after us.
Bob and Sally Dowler
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