Michael Martin muscles in on libel reform

The divisive former Commons speaker Michael Martin returned to the spotlight yesterday in an effort to obstruct libel reform plans.

The Labour peer is attempting to use an arcane House of Lords tool to delay reforms that will limit the fees which lawyers can claim for successful “no-win, no-fee” defamation cases.

Justice secretary Jack Straw plans to reduce these success bonuses by 90 per cent, as he believes they produce a chilling effect that hinders freedom of expression and a free press.

However, Martin has tabled a “motion of regret” that will call for more consultation on the measures, which were due to come into force next month.

The Daily Telegraph reports:

“If Lord Martin’s attempt succeeds but no time can be found for the debate before parliament is dissolved for the election, the reform package will be lost.”

Martin himself is no stranger to spending thousands of pounds on lawyers’ fees.

In 2007, he spent nearly £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on legal advice from the libel specialists Carter-Ruck to challenge a serious of negative stories about him in the press. He also infamously used £150,000 of public funds to block the publication of MPs’ expenses under the Freedom of Information Act.

Martin, who became the first parliamentary speaker to be forced out of office for 300 years, is being supported by the pressure group Lawyers for Media Standards, who have threatened a judicial review of Straw’s plans. And yet, the group has faced its own legal problems in recent weeks, according to the Guardian diary:

“Libel lawyers have written to Jack Straw complaining about his plans to reduce their so-called “success fees” in cases against the media. They approached him as “Lawyers for Media Standards”, which even he must have thought sounded quite impressive. But not so Companies House, which told them this title sounded far too official and regulatory to be allowed. They’ve now had to re-christen themselves “Lawyers for Media Rights”, though some say they should have done with it and call themselves “Lawyers for Huge Fees.”

Blogger and author Richard Wilson did a little digging on the group. Turns out the firm behind it represents the British Chriropractic Association in its action against Simon Singh. Funny that.

Ken Macdonald: The public’s right to know should be engraved on the heart of every legislator

Chandeliers, moats and tennis courts. Who ever imagined it would come to this? With the current controversy over expenses, parliament is at serious risk of inflicting damage upon itself that could take a generation or more to repair.

Of course there are always security issues to be considered whenever data is stolen. And while MPs may have only limited claims to privacy, and none at all where expenses are concerned, they certainly have an unrestricted right to personal safety. Equally, it’s obviously troubling if bank details and passwords are being passed around. Yet at a time like this it is hard to avoid the conclusion that reaching for the police is the worst possible option: in truth we are far beyond that.

A scandal that has been exposed by free speech on the front page of a newspaper cannot be undone by attacking the human right that dragged it out into the daylight. It is painfully obvious that instead of being persuaded that open comment is the crime here, the public will take recent events as the best possible argument for protecting it at all costs.

In trying to keep their expenses secret, parliamentarians fell dangerously out of kilter with an electorate who now feel thoroughly vindicated by the horrors visited upon them. It would be dangerous indeed if the idea got around that Westminster’s most telling response to public anger was an ill-advised attempt to lash out at the gleeful messenger. This may be rough justice, but a little more transparency a little earlier on might have brought us a happier regime less threatened by curious eyes.

The public’s right to know should be engraved on the heart of every legislator. Life would be so much easier for them if they all understood this. It would be especially easier for the rest of us if their Speaker did.