Solicitors’ ‘defamation highlight’ is low point for client Jacqui
The homelessness facing Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson and her husband Kerry, reported in this week’s Private Eye (p.16), is not exactly a triumph for her legal team.
Yet Simons Muirhead and Burton, her solicitors in the 2013 libel court case in which she sued Carmarthenshire County Council’s chief executive Mark James and lost, and he counter-sued her and won, claim the litigation as one of their “defamation highlights”.
“Lucy Moorman and Jeffrey Smele represented award-winning blogger, Jacqui Thompson, in her libel action against Carmarthenshire County Council and its Chief Executive, Mark James, who also counterclaimed,” their website proclaims.
Lucy Moorman, a barrister, is now a pre-transmission advice lawyer at the BBC. Jeffrey Smele remains at Simons Muirhead and Burton, as a senior lawyer.
No mention on the web page, though, that the judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, found for Mr James both times, after deciding to accept his evidence and to reject Jacqui’s.
To be fair to the solicitors, so much of a libel trial heard by a single judge appears to depend on their personal interpretation of motives, which is hard to predict.
Jacqui’s double loss should have been covered by her legal insurance, but Temple Legal Protection Ltd cancelled the cover (always read the small print) after hearing Mr Justice Tugendhat doubt Jacqui’s truthfulness.
Asked if she had been aware that her cover could disappear, Jacqui said yes, she knew, it had all been explained to her, but she never thought it could happen because she knew she was telling the truth.
That assumption, in the dangerous world of libel, was mistaken. The judge decided that Jacqui and her family had waged a “campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time”, and that Jacqui’s terms ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘slush fund’, applied to Mr James, were libellous.
Lacking insurance after losing, Jacqui found herself liable for costs and damages exceeding a quarter of a million pounds. Her only big asset is her share of the bungalow in which she and Kerry live. Mr James has applied for a court order to enable him to sell the bungalow to recoup damages.
Sudden withdrawal of insurance cover has left Jacqui and Kerry in a nightmare situation. Should it be allowed when, as here, Jacqui is not facing a criminal charge? At the behest of Mr James, Dyfed-Powys Police investigated Jacqui for perverting the course of justice but could not find evidence to warrant a criminal prosecution.
Jonathan Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where Jacqui lives, said he has never been lobbied about the withdrawal of insurance cover, but sees the injustice in its summary removal.
“A fair justice system is the foundation of our modern society which binds us together in our belief of fairness and accountability. Part of our justice system is, of course, the principle of equal access to justice for all,” he said.
“This particular case, and the cancelling of legal insurance, is not an issue on which I’ve ever been lobbied and I am unaware of any widespread practice of policies being cancelled.
“If such a practice is indeed widespread then changing the law to prevent this would seem sensible in order to ensure justice is not reserved to only those who can afford it.”
Remembering that Mr James had the security of an indemnity from public funds, and Jacqui had only a (misplaced) confidence that she would be vindicated, and the extreme imbalance in the legal system is plain.
Insurance companies willing to cancel cover, although evidence does not reach the standard required for a criminal trial, tilts the scales of justice even more in favour of those with fat wallets or access to the public purse.