In a post on this blog on Friday 16 September 2011, the Chair of Lawyers for Media Standards, Steven Heffer, described the News International phone hacking compensation scheme as “smoke and mirrors”. He noted that, despite the scheme having been announced in April 2011, no details have yet been made public.
News International has now responded to these criticisms. A spokesperson told the Press Gazette
“In April this year, NI announced its intention to establish a compensation scheme for victims of unlawful voicemail interception. The scheme will be used as a fair and efficient alternative to obtaining compensation through court action. In June, Sir Charles Gray, a former High Court judge, was appointed to oversee the scheme. Since then, discussions with key interested parties have been ongoing, with the precise details of the scheme’s practical implementation the particular focus of talks held this month. These discussions are nearing their conclusion and it is hoped the scheme will up and running as soon as possible”.
No further details were given and the “key interested parties” were not identified. No draft terms have been published for discussion.
Steven Heffer described the News International statement as “pretty unimpressive”.
“it largely repeats what was said in the April and June announcements. There is no explanation for the long delay. I presume when the spokeman talks of discussions with “key interested parties” he or she means people from NI. I am not aware that any of the relevant lawyers involved in the phone hacking cases have been consulted at all on matters relating to the scheme.”
It is worth recalling the history. The scheme was first mentioned on 8 April 2011. On 13 June 2011, News International announced that Sir Charles Gray had agreed to act as the independent adjudicator under for the scheme. On that occasion it said
“NGN will publish further details and a start date for the scheme in the very near future”.
Nothing was published. Over a month later, on 18 July 2011 as part of a statement on “Putting right what’s gone wrong” News International said
“We have also set up a compensation scheme adjudicated by former High Court judge Sir Charles Gray to offer fair settlement to those affected”.
Nothing more has been heard about the scheme which was going to start “in the very near future” in June and which “had been set up” in July.
The delays are perhaps unsurprising. There is a fundamental difficulty with the proposed scheme which has not been commented on. Compensation can only be decided on the basis of documentary evidence as to the extent of hacking in an individual case. This comes from the “Mulcaire archive” which is in the hands of the police. The Operation Weeting officers will show the documents to “notified victims” but will not provide them with copies. The only way in which these can be obtained is by means of a court order – which is made after the issue of proceedings against News Group Newspapers Limited. In other words, the only way in which the “compensation scheme” can operate is by considering documents which are available only to those who commence litigation.
It may be that this “Catch 22” is what is preventing the scheme from moving forward. If the scheme is to work, News Group will have to agree to pay the costs of issuing and obtaining disclosure – and any court order will have to provide that the documents can be used for the purposes of the scheme.