Libel Success Fees To Be Cut From Next Month

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY JACK STRAW said today that libel costs could be dramatically reduced from April as he tabled a legal amendment to cut success fees charged by lawyers in “no win, no fee” defamation cases by 90 per cent.

The move follows the Justice Secretary outlining proposals last month to reduce success fees to ten per cent of their current level as he launched a consultation on tackling the “unjustified” fees charged by lawyers. Currently lawyers in libel and privacy cases can claim up to a 100 per cent uplift on the basic fees from the losing side of they were working under a Conditional Fee Agreement (no win, no fee).

The Ministry of Justice said today that more than half (53 per cent) of those involved in the consultation, which featured figures from the legal and media professions alongside members of the judiciary and legal insurance groups, backed the planned changes.

Straw said reducing fees would help “level the playing field” in defamation cases and aid publication of articles “which are in the public interest without incurring such disproportionate legal bills”.

He added: “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 Statutory Order I am laying today reduces the maximum success fee from 100 per cent to 10 per cent, rebalancing the system so it is affordable for the press to defend defamation cases, whilst still ensuring access to justice for those who feel they have been defamed.”

Straw said the move would prove to be a “swift solution” to a problem highlighted by both the Culture Media and Sport select committee and Lord Justice Jackson in his review of civil litigation costs.

“Both Lord Justice Jackson’s report and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s reports were thorough and well considered, highlighting the need to reduce the 100 per cent success fees in defamation cases,” Straw added.

“Their recommendations warrant careful consideration and I will be closely studying their proposals over the coming months.

“In the meantime, the steps I am taking today to reduce the success fee to 10 per cent should go a long way towards securing the freedom of scientific exchange and our tradition of investigative journalism, which are so fundamental to the protection of our democracy in this country.”

Press Gazette has been highlighting the injustices of the Conditional Fee Agreement system for the last two years with its Fair Play on CFA campaign. The move against CFA success fees comes as the Government is looking into even more substantial changes to the libel laws.

A working party has already been established to consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform.

The group, which has already met on three occasions, is expected to report its initial findings to ministers later this month.

Gay Weddings To Be Allowed In Church

(Independent) – GAY MEN AND WOMEN will finally be allowed to marry in churches after the House of Lords dramatically voted in favour of lifting the ban on religious premises holding same-sex partnerships.

The amendment to the Equality Bill, which was tabled as a free vote by gay Muslim peer Waheed Alli, received overwhelming backing in the Lords, including from a number of prominent Anglican bishops.

Under current UK law religious venues are forbidden from holding civil partnerships, although some liberal denominations within Christianity and Judaism have been willing to bless gay unions once a partnership ceremony has taken place elsewhere.

The lifting of the ban, which still needs to be approved by the House of Commons, will now give religious venues the option of conducting civil partnerships – but it will not compel them to do so, as some traditionalists had feared.

Lord Alli denied the suggestion that religious communities would be forced to accept gay marriages.

“Religious freedom cannot begin and end with what one religion wants,” he said. “This amendment does not place an obligation on any religious organisation to host civil partnerships in their buildings. But there are many gay and lesbian couples who want to share their civil partnership with the congregations that they worship with. And there are a number of religious organisations that want to allow gay and lesbian couples to do exactly that.”

Gay rights activists and members of churches that have pushed for a lifting of the ban hailed the Lords’ decision as victory for equal rights and religious expression.

But the amendment has caused consternation among religious figures who are opposed to homosexuality and fear that they could eventually face costly legal battles if they sacked or disciplined clergy who ignored their own prohibitions on gay marriage.

The vote came just hours before the last remaining Catholic adoption agency went to the High Court to try and force the government to allow it to continue refusing to place adoptees with homosexual foster parents.

Since 2005 adoption agencies have been compelled to consider gay applicants with the result that all but one of Britain’s Catholic adoption agencies have either shut down or had to disassociate themselves from the Catholic Church.

Dr Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, said he feared a similar thing could happen to churches that continued to refused to offer gay ceremonies.

“We don’t want to see in a few years’ time churches ending up in the same boat, where they are forced to comply with anti-discrimination law or close down,” he said.

For the Church of England the amendment is equally problematic. Although a small number of Anglican clergy will inevitably consider holding civil partnerships in their churches, they would still be technically forbidden from doing so under the Church of England’s canon law which can only be changed by the General Synod or the House of Bishops.

Gay marriages in churches will not happen immediately because the amendment must still be approved by the House of Commons. MPs are unlikely to oppose it because the vote was so overwhelming in the Lords. But with a general election and change of parliament coming up it could be months before the Commons actually gets round to debating the ban.

The amendment is a major victory for religious groups who have no theological problems with the idea of marrying gays in their religious venues.

Three religious communities – the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches – have already said that they wish to hold legally recognised same-sex partnerships. Some liberal clergy within Methodist, Baptist and Anglican denominations could also conceivably open their doors to gay weddings.

Many religious gay campaigners hope that the lifting of the ban will eventually lead to gay couples being allowed to use the word “marriage”, rather than civil partnerships.

The liberal Christian think-tank Ekklesia yesterday called on the government to entirely overhaul Britain’s marriage laws and separate the legal process of registration from religious ceremonies. Many believe such a step would allow both objectors to gay marriage and supporters to find a way of expressing their beliefs freely and openly within British law.

“An overhaul of marriage law is urgently required to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society,” said co-director Symon Hill. “It is time for a legal change that allows people to enter into marriages or partnerships as a public, communal, and if important to them, a religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process.”

Quakers are most likely to start conducting civil partnerships in their churches as soon as the ban is legally lifted. Last year they took the unprecedented step of announcing that they wanted to give gay couples full marriage ceremonies. The move was significant because, like rabbis and Church of England priests, Quaker registrars are allowed to marry people on behalf of the state.

Chris Campbell, a Quaker who is in a long term relationship with a Roman Catholic, told The Independent that many gay Christians want to see the day when they can have a civil partnership in their church.

“I really wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going to a civil registrar: it’s not what marriage is about for us,” he said. “It’s a solemn and binding commitment in the presence of God. Without some recognition of that religious element, it certainly put me off the idea of getting married.”

He believes many churches will be able to improve their image once they are no longer banned from holding civil ceremonies. “There are not one but two causes for celebration,” he said. “Not only are people in same-sex relationships closer than ever before to having their love recognised in the same way as any other committed Christian couple, but it’s also a triumph for the image of the church. Some people now see the Church as being out-of-touch, but this amendment demonstrates otherwise: it gives Churches the right to hold civil partnerships on their premises if they choose. They’ll finally have the choice to act on the conclusions they’ve come to after their own prayerful discussions, and that’s got to be a good thing.”

Church Leaders Defeat Government Over Gay Staff

(Telegraph) – CHURCH LEADERS have inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Government by overturning plans to force members of the clergy to hire gays and transsexuals.

Under the current law, religious groups can restrict jobs to believers and refuse to hire people whose private conduct is inconsistent with their teaching.

The Government had been proposing to water down these restrictions in Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, which was being debated in the House of Lords yesterday.

However, the key amendments to change the law were thrown out by peers in a vote by 216 to 178 in a humiliating defeat for Miss Harman.

Miss Harman can try to force the measure through the Commons – and risk losing the whole Bill because of the short amount of time left in this Parliament.

The other option would be to drop the proposal and leave the UK at odds with an existing EU directive.

Last night secular campaigners said they would be complaining to the European Commission if the measure was dropped.

During a debate in the Lords, Baroness O’Cathain, who led the rebels, said: organisations should be free to choose their staff on whether they share those beliefs.

“How would a rape crisis centre operate if it was forced to employ male counsellors. This is the state trying to tell people who they can and can’t employ.”

She added that a Government minister had already given warning that the plans would lead to legal battles between churches and atheists, insisting that both sides “need to be lining up (their lawyers) by now.”

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, added: “Where are the examples of actual abuses that have caused difficulties?

“Where are the court rulings that have shown that the law is defective? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

“The truth is that there are none because the status quo has been working perfectly satisfactorily.”

In reply Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Leader of the House of Lords, insisted it was “not the Government’s intention to narrow the scope of the Bill”.

The Equality Bill is an attempt by ministers to consolidate existing anti-discrimination legislation into a single Act of Parliament.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservatives’ shadow minister for Community Cohesion, hailed the vote as a “victory for common sense”.

She said: “We delivered a blow against the government’s attempt to narrow the definition of ‘employment’ for the purposes of religion.

“The Church of England, the Catholic Church and leaders of other faiths have all campaigned together in a true spirit of Community Cohesion to protect an important religious freedom.”

Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “We are delighted that the House of Lords has voted to protect freedom of association for churches.

“It is a shame that the Government didn’t listen to churches earlier. It’s almost as if they don’t care about Christians.”

But Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “The Government has faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of religious agitation in the Lords.

“The National Secular Society will once more complain to the European Commission. It is now quite likely the Government will be prosecuted in the European Court of Justice.”

Lady Butler-Sloss, one of Britain’s longest serving senior judges, told peers the Bill would restrict “the rights of religious groups to work with those of the same views and same religious convictions and it will, if passed, create the confusion it seeks to avoid.”

Labour peer Lord Davies added: “My support for my Government is second only to my Christian view.

“My view is that the standards and morals of the Christian church makes this country a much better place and I shall always oppose any measures that seek to marginalise the Christian Church.”

Libel Success Fees Could Be Cut By 90%

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY Jack Straw has outlined proposals today that could see libel cost dramatically reduced with the limits on success fees charged by lawyers in “no win, no fee” cases cut by 90 per cent.

Straw announced a month-long consultation on tackling the “unjustified” success fees charged by lawyers, after which the changes outlined today could be enacted by Parliament under an “affirmative order” which would need to be debated in both Houses of Parliament.

The current law allows lawyers to double their fees under conditional fee agreements by claiming a success fee of up to 100 per cent on top of their usual fee, Straw said today that should be reduced to just 10 per cent.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman told Press Gazette that, depending on other parliamentary business, the changes could be made by the end of April and so before a possible general election in early May.

The MoJ said in a statement: “The proposal aims to prevent court costs in defamation cases spiralling out of control, deterring journalists and writers from publishing articles which are in the public interest, or forcing them to settle rather than defend defamation actions.”

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: “Freedom of expression and investigative journalism are fundamental protections to the democracy of this country. I have recently announced a review of the law of libel, with a working group to consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions.

“I am, however, aware of the growing concern about the high legal costs in defamation and some other publication cases brought under conditional fee agreements (CFAs).

“Lawyers need to recover their costs and be rewarded for their efforts and the risks they undertake when providing people with access to justice in ‘no win no fee’ cases. But evidence suggests that the regular doubling of fees that currently takes place is simply not justified and the balance of costs between claimant and defendant needs to be reconsidered.”

The announcement follows Sir Rupert Jackson’s review of costs in the civil courts which suggested last week that success fees in libel and privacy cases should be scrapped altogether. This would require primary legislation, so won’t happen before the election.

Straw said he welcomed the Jackson report, adding “I look forward to considering the proposals in detail”, but he also said: “The case for an urgent interim measure for dealing with success fees in defamation cases has become clear; that is why I am publishing this important consultation paper today.”

This follows earlier changes to the libel rules announced by the MoJ in October which included creating a 42-day cooling-off period before claimants could start charging publishers for the cost of taking out After the Event insurance.

Press Gazette has been highlighting the injustices of the Conditional Fee Agreement system for the last two years with its Fair Play on CFA campaign.

Islam4UK To Be Banned

(Guardian) – THE ISLAMIST GROUP Islam4UK, which planned a march through Wootton Bassett, and its “parent” organisation, al-Muhajiroun, will be banned under new legislation outlawing the “glorification” of terrorism, Alan Johnson announced today.

The order, which will come into effect on Thursday, will make it a criminal offence to be a member of either of the groups, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

“I have today laid an order which will proscribe al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK, and a number of the other names the organisation goes by,” Johnson said. Other names are Call to Submission, Islamic Path and London School of Sharia. The group is already proscribed under two other names – al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect or the Saviour Sect.

Johnson said that proscription was “a tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism”, adding that it was “not a course we take lightly”.

The decision, based on months of monitoring the output of websites and comments by senior figures, will have to be endorsed by parliament. Al-Muhajiroun was founded by Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjem Choudary, and has been operating in Britain since the mid-1980s.

The group became notorious for praising the September 11 attacks in 2001. Bakri was banned from Britain by the former home secretary Charles Clarke in August 2005, on the grounds that his presence in the country was “not conducive to the public good”.

At the same time, the Home Office announced its intention to ban the group but it disappeared from view before relaunching itself in June last year.

The Saviour sect and al-Ghurabaa were proscribed under the 2000 Terrorism Act.

Islam4UK has called off its planned march through Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire market town that has come to symbolise the fatalities sustained by British forces in Afghanistan.

It said it had “successfully highlighted the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan globally”.

The group said that if their organisation and al-Muhajiroun were banned, “another platform with a new name will arise to continue to fulfil these divine objections until the sharia has been implemented”.

Counterterrorism legislation passed in 2006 is designed to automatically ban any “successor” organisations set up by proscribed groups.

Home Office lawyers are drawing up the necessary parliamentary order implementing the ban so it can be debated by MPs within days.

The move came as MPs heard evidence of tensions within government over the direction of the official programme aimed at preventing violent extremism.

Written evidence from the Local Government Association (LGA) for a special Commons select committee held in a Birmingham mosque yesterday, confirmed that tension between the Home Office’s office of security and counterterrorism and the Department of Communities and Local Government had been a problem at times.

The LGA said the heart of the disagreements had been the focus of the Prevent programme, with the communities secretary, John Denham, arguing that it should be part of the broader work on community cohesion and equalities. “Police and the security services will necessarily see things in a different perspective,” an LGA memo said.

Its evidence said that the security services have moved away from developing a profile of a “typical extremist”, to a more rounded analysis of potential risks and interventions.

Evidence from the Association of Chief Police Officers to the MPs’ inquiry said that so far 228 young adults aged under 25 “who have been inspired by the al-Qaida ideology” have been referred to the Channel Project, which provides support to those believed to be vulnerable to radicalisation.

Councils Able To Bring In More 20mph Speed Limits

(Telegraph) – NEW PROPOSALS to allow local councils to bring in more 20mph speed-limit areas have been announced by the Government.

Up until now, councils wanting to introduce 20mph limits on groups of roads have to do so in speed zones which require traffic-calming measures such as speed humps.

The proposals, announced by Road Safety Minister Paul Clark, do away with the need for the schemes to be accompanied by humps or other measures.

The Government is encouraging councils to introduce the 20mph schemes into residential streets and other roads where cycle and pedestrian traffic is high, such as around schools, shops and parks.

The ”no-humps” plan follows a successful citywide trial, where early indications are that casualties have dipped by 15%.

The Government also renewed its call to local councils to review speed limits on rural roads by 2011.

The Government wants councils to consider reducing the 60mph speed limit – possibly to 50mph – on the most accident-prone single-carriageway A and B roads.

Mr Clark said: ”The number of people killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads has fallen by 40% since the mid-1990s and Britain now has the joint safest roads in the world. But too many pedestrians and cyclists – including many children – are still being killed or hurt on the roads around their homes and schools.

”We have seen that 20mph zones with traffic calming measures can make a real difference to the safety of local roads. But we’ve also looked at the latest research and listened to councils and residents who want to introduce 20mph limits on a series of roads where physical traffic calming measures aren’t possible or practical.”

The Government proposals were given a cautious welcome today by motoring groups.

Edmund King, the AA president, said: ”We need to introduce a broad degree of common sense when dealing with speed restrictions.

”What we don’t want to see is local authorities adopting an overzealous approach. We’re certainly not keen on blanket reductions but the AA and its members back the idea of targeted reductions.

”We also support 20mph zones where they are needed. But we would like to see more varied speed limits. A 20mph restriction around a school is fine at 8.50 in the morning but not so good at 2am at night.

”Local authorities must remember that we need roads for movement. They must be careful not to introduce limits that lead to drivers getting impatient and trying to overtake all the time.”

Last week a report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed that the introduction of 20mph speed zones in London had reduced road injuries by more than 40 per cent over the period 1986 to 2006.

It found the benefits were most marked in young-child accident rates, with deaths or serious injuries to children reduced by half.

The report also said pedestrian injuries were reduced by just under a third and cycling casualties by 16.9 per cent.

Straw To Consult Newspapers Over Super Injunctions

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY JACK STRAW has launched a consultation with lawyers from major newspapers following the row over ‘super-injunctions’ following the Trafigura row.

Junior justice minister Bridget Prentice told MPs last week that a number of senior judges would also be involved in a consultation over court orders which ban publication of certain information and also ban reporting about the order being made.

Prentice told MPs: ‘We are very concerned that super-injunctions are being used more commonly, particularly in the area of libel and privacy.

‘The Secretary of State for Justice [Straw] has already asked senior officials in the department to discuss the matter with lawyers from the major newspapers. We are also involving the judiciary in a consultation.

‘We are looking specifically at how the use of super-injunctions has had an effect and what we therefore need to do on that.’

Prentice told MPs during a debate on 21 October she would relay MPs message that further guidelines might be needed for judiciary to the Justice Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice.

The Prime Minister told MPs earlier this month Straw would examine the use of so-called ‘super injunctions’ after the Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question tabled by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly, a former journalist, relating to oil company Trafigura because of an injunction obtained by the firm’s lawyers, Carter Ruck.

Prentice told MPs the advice given to the Guardian by Carter-Ruck that the newspaper would be in contempt for reporting Farrelly’s question, was incorrect.

She added: ‘I am happy to ensure that we send them a copy of Article 9 [of the Bill of Rights 1689], so that they can read and peruse it at their leisure.’