Campbell won a lawsuit accusing the British newspaper of violating her privacy. With that lawsuit, the newspaper was expected to pay Campbell £3,500 and her legal costs, which “amounted to more than £1 million” because it included a success fee for her lawyers. UK success fees are like American contingency fee arrangements, where “the lawyer receives a percentage of the money the client wins in a lawsuit.”
In this case, Campbell’s legal representation used a “conditional fee agreement,” in which her law firm billed £365,000 in success fees.
The success fee of £365,000 was deemed “disproportionate” by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled on the case, the UK Press Association reported. (See the Jan 18 judgment here.) As the press association explained, success fees allow lawyers to “gain hefty bonuses againstt the losing defendants.”
The lawsuit came as a result of a 2001 Daily Mirror story titled “Naomi: I am a drug addict,” Roy Greenslade explained in a This is London article. The Mirror’s story wasn’t “an exclusive interview,” but instead “based on what we might generously call ‘an interpretation’ of the facts,” Greenslade wrote.
According to Greenslade, a photographer caught pictures of Campbell leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The same day the story was published, Campbell’s lawyers alleged that the Daily Mirror violated Campbell’s privacy.
“It proved to be the start of a lengthy legal saga, with twists and turns marked by judicial ambivalence, that reached its conclusion yesterday with what will surely be regarded as a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.”
The ruling itself noted that Campbell’s attorney had asked the Daily Mirror to not publish any more “confidential and/or private information.” However, the Daily Mirror published an article Feb. 5, 2001 and an article Feb. 7, 2001 about the lawsuit threats, both articles re-mentioning the earlier Narcotics Anonymous story.
The court battle over the story has evolved. As Greenslade detailed:
- High Court found the Daily Mirror violated Campbell’s privacy in 2002. (See story here).
- Appeals Court “overturned” the High Court’s ruling.
- Campbell “appealed to the House of Lords, which agreed with the original ruling” granting Campbell “£3500 in damages.” (See 2004 story here).
- That ruling called for the Daily Mirror “to pay Campbell’s legal costs, which totalled £1.1 million and included a success fee of £280,000.”
- The Daily Mirror’s parent company, MGN, filed an appeal claiming that success fee “was far too high and breached its right to freedom of expression.”
- Appeal was dismissed in 2005 because judges argued “the success fee was an integral part of the CFA.”
- The Daily Mirror’s parent company filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights claiming that the newspaper didn’t violate Campbell’s privacy and “its freedom of expression had been violated by the success fee.”
This week’s ruling upheld the verdict that the Daily Mirror did violate Campbell’s privacy; however, the newspaper doesn’t have to pay the success fee. According to the UK Press Association, Campbell’s privacy charges were legitimate, as the ruling explained:
“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.”
The judges decided that the Daily Mirror didn’t have to pay the success fees because the original law calling for the losing party to a lawsuit to cover wasn’t necessarily created to cover celebrities who can afford their own lawyers.
“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,” the Press Association reported.
An unnamed MGN spokesperson reportedly commented on the ruling: “This has been a long hard fight … but we have been proved right.”
The ruling “means that claimants in privacy and libel cases will no longer be allowed to recover a success fee from defendants. That is a major plus for newspapers worried about the chilling effect of rising legal costs, but not only for them,” Greenslade explained.
The Daily Mirror noted in its own article about the ruling that it “was backed by campaign groups including Open Society Justice Initiative, Index on Censorship, Global Witness and Human Rights Watch.”
Index on Censorship’s Jo Glanville called the ruling “a resounding triumph, spelling the end of success fees in defamation and privacy cases, one of the most serious chilling effects on freedom of expression in the UK,” Journalism.co.uk reported.