Opinion: “Phone Hacking Compensation Scheme: Smoke and Mirrors?” – Steven Heffer

16 09 2011

On 9 April this year News of the World publisher News Group Newspapers announced in the media that it had appointed a former High Court Judge to run a scheme to pay compensation to victims of phone hacking.  Press articles confirmed that Sir Charles Gray had agreed to be the independent adjudicator of the scheme.

Rebekah Brooks (since retired and arrested),  said at the time

we very much hope that the scheme will be used as a fair and efficient alternative to obtaining compensation through court action and satisfy successful claimants that we sincerely regret any harm caused”.

Sir Charles Gray was reported as having reviewed the terms of the scheme and commented “it provides a fair, effective and speedy means for determining compensation”.

According to the press, if victims chose to apply for compensation from NGN, a subsidiary of News International, Gray will assess how much a court would have paid in damages for each civil case, and the final settlement figure will be reached by adding 10% to that sum.  This premium (it was said) was designed to encourage victims to take part in the scheme rather than pursue legal action through the courts.  It was designed to encourage victims to drop civil actions which lead to embarrassing revelations about the nature and scale of the practice being made in open court.

So, have all victims transferred to the scheme and experienced the speedy resolution promised?  Well, not exactly.  So far lawyers acting for victims have drawn a blank.  There is no website, nor any published information about the terms of the scheme other than these press reports.

News Group’s lawyers seemed unable to offer any information but (when repeatedly pressed) suggested that details would be ready by the end of August.  August passed with no further details published.

It is now six months since the scheme was announced along with a public apology to a number of victims of phone hacking.  The Guardian reported the “unprecedented statement of contrition is a remarkable volte face for the country’s most powerful news organisation that was claiming until the start of this year, in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, that hacking was the work of a single reporter”.

Meanwhile, the phone hacking litigation rumbles on towards a trial of six lead cases next year.  Many further victims have come to light, having been informed by the Police that they have been hacked but it seems that not one of these victims has been offered to participate in the compensation scheme.

Sue Akers, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in charge of the fresh investigation into phone hacking, Operation Weeting, told a group of MPs  in July that the Met was trying to contact every one of the people named in Mulcaire’s notes, but admitted that “just 170 have been told so far”.

The Mulcaire documents alone amount to 11,000 pages of material containing nearly 4,000 names of possible hacking victims.  There are thousands more potential claimants who have not yet been told by the Police that their names appear on the Police database.  Now with further possible disclosure of voluminous documents, the number of potential victims is unimaginable.

The Police have had their hands full, with all the arrests in the last few months, enquiries from the public and the recovery of substantial additional material.  News International has been fire fighting and trying to cope with an almost daily change of events, and the loss of key people, including some of their lawyers.

The scheme was announced by News International in April with much publicity…. but was it all “smoke and mirrors”?

Steven Heffer is chair of Lawyers for Media Standards and Head of Media at law firm Collyer Bristow LLP.

 


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2 responses

16 09 2011
Elaine Decoulos

Sounds like the classic stall tactic. One can only conclude that News International has stymied the process. I hope they are not retaining
Sir Charles Gray to do nothing. His skills should not be wasted. He was a gem of a judge in the Queen’s Bench. Extremely fair and also very clever and inventive.

If they are no longer making adequate use of Sir Charles Gray’s immense intellectual and people skills, perhaps he could help with The Leveson Inquiry. He could certainly assist in evaluating the ethical void at the heart of the British press. His skills need to be used at a time when the eyes of the world are focused on the dysfunctional British press.

He knows more about the press, their shenanigans and the law than almost anyone. Unlike some others, he is also not afraid to hold them to account. I have a feeling Lord Leveson might welcome his expertise. This opportunity to clean up the British press should not be lost. It needs root and branch reform.

16 09 2011
Elaine Decoulos

Sorry, I should have said, Lord Justice Leveson. Well…I am in Massachusetts! No Lords in the vicinity.

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