First-hand: 'I battled for two years to clear my name': Can the ordinary person fight a libel? It's hell, says James Fraser-Armstrong

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WE ARE taught as children that 'sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me'. But as we grow older we discover that in many instances words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Once something is printed about you, it's not forgotten. No one should be allowed to say malicious things about another person to benefit themselves - whether the subject is a member of the Royal Family or an ordinary person.

I know, because I have also had my reputation blackened in print. But whereas the Princess of Wales will never take legal action over this latest book, and have herself dragged through court, I did. I felt it was the most important thing I could do. I fought for two years to clear my name.

In 1991 I was working for a PR company but I left the firm in October that year. It was a small team and there were differences of opinion between myself and my employer. The split was a mutual decision. Two months later, I opened a copy of the industry journal - the magazine read by everyone in my professional world and personal life - and there was a quote from my ex-employer saying that I was incompetent and had been sacked. It was the most horrifying and disturbing thing that had ever happened to me. All my friends were astonished and kept ringing me up to say how appalled they were.

After the shock subsided, I set about seeing what I could do to fight back. I wrote to the magazine to ask why they'd never allowed me a reply and to my ex-employer to ask why she'd said these things in the first place. Neither apologised, so I decided to go to a leading libel firm for advice. I couldn't afford their rates - it was pounds 150 an hour - but they explained that I could always fight back myself as a 'plaintiff-in-person'. They agreed to give me the professional guidance I would need.

What followed was two years of utter hell in the High Court. In order to defend myself, I had to prove that the remarks had been made maliciously with the intention of damaging me. Both the magazine and my ex-employer had hired high-powered defence lawyers. I had just me, and they didn't take me seriously at all.

All through the pre-trial hearings I had to get court orders to make them show me the evidence they intended to use against me - mainly written documents which attempted to support my ex-employer's claims of incompetence, including statements from past employers and clients. There were endless delays: it was all just a ploy to drag it out in the hope I would give up, I think.

I was unemployed all this time and there were plenty of days when I did feel like giving up. But I couldn't afford to because if I lost I would have to pay their legal costs.

When my case finally came to trial I spent 13 days in the High Court defending myself. It was extremely nerve-racking because you're at the mercy of 12 complete strangers. All sorts of witnesses were dredged up from my past. One witness was someone I'd only met once for five minutes at a party, yet this person had made a one-page statement about my incompetence. I had to cross-examine them all and try to disprove everything they were saying. It was terrifying.

At the end of it the jury found that my ex-employer had acted indeed acted maliciously and tried intentionally to damage my name. I was stunned and overjoyed. The magazine eventually published an account of the jury's findings and costs are still to be resolved.

It's been a long, solitary fight. It's been worth it, but I'm still not sure if my reputation has been fully repaired. When you tear cloth and stitch it up, there's still always going to be a tear, even though it has been mended.

I'm not bitter, but I do feel I've wasted two years of my life. My new production company could have been two years old now, not two months old. But it's made me realise that the man in the street can fight back. I would do it all again. Your reputation is all you are and it's worth fighting for.

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