European court rules on no win, no fee deals


The Bureau of Investigative Journalism applauds the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the 18th January 2011.

The Strasbourg court decided that the recovery of ‘success fees’ by lawyers in privacy and defamation cases represented a significant violation of freedom of expression as enshrined by the European convention on human rights, after a long-running battle between the publishers of the Daily Mirror and model Naomi Campbell.

In recent years media lawyers have been motivated into taking on ‘no win, no fee’ cases through the chance to increase hourly rates by up to 100 per cent on those cases that they won. Firms were reported to have billed media organisations as much as £750 an hour for work undertaken by a firm’s partner, even though the case in question may have been low-risk and involved straightforward publication errors.

ECHR Judges said this ‘chilled’ free speech because news organisations would give in rather than risk paying out.

The publishers of the Mirror newspaper, MGN ltd, brought the case to Strasbourg when it was forced to pay £500,000 in costs and fees to Ms Campbell and her lawyers Schillings after the paper was found to have breached her privacy by photographing her leaving a drug addiction treatment centre in 2001.

The flaws in the system highlighted by the judgement meant that even NGOs and small publishers — including bloggers — were extremely vulnerable to the threat of a costly libel or privacy actions in the UK.

Without the financial means to defend themselves, they had little choice but to apologise and retract allegations even when they knew them to be true.

Iain Overton, Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said: ‘This ruling marks the end of success fees in privacy and defamation cases.  This constitutes a triumph for serious investigative journalism and freedom of expression in the UK.’

The judgement at the European Court of Human Rights means that no win no fee rules brought in by the New Labour  government in the 1990s will have to be reconsidered.