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Hamilton backers may be liable for pounds 2.5m bill

CONTRIBUTORS TO the legal fund to support Neil Hamilton in his libel action against Mohamed Al Fayed may be held liable for pounds 2.5m in costs after the former Conservative minister's High Court defeat.

The donors are seen under law as "maintainers" who have sustained Mr Hamilton in hislegal action against the Harrods owner over "cash for questions" allegations, and will be held accountable for payment if the former MP for Tatton files for bankruptcy. The development came as more supporters' names began to emerge, including the Earl of Portsmouth, and it was revealed that the Hamiltons' legal bill was far higher than had been thought.

The judge, Mr Justice Morland, awarded costs against Mr Hamilton over the action, which has dragged on for five years. Mr Fayed's side has only had to make one payment to Mr Hamilton, of about pounds 60,000, after failing at a Court of Appeal hearing in March last year.

Mr Hamilton was also ordered to disclose the names of anyone who had donated more than pounds 5,000. But Lord Harris of High Cross, the 75-year- old founding president of the Institute of Economic Affairs who set up the fund with the former Guinness Book of Records chief Norris McWhirter, said he would rather face prison than identify donors. He said: "At the moment I am highly disinclined to give any names. If it was a question of a week in jail for contempt of court then I suppose I would have to do it."

Just how liable individual members of the fund would be will have to be decided by the judge. However, legal experts said that liability does not stop with the amount pledged or given, but only when the whole sum had been recovered.

Little is known about Quentin Gerard Carew Wallop, the 10th Earl of Portsmouth, except that he is very rich and has taken an interest in defamation cases in the past. He spent about pounds 500,000 backing Count Tolstoy in his unsuccessful fight against Lord Aldingon over the count's allegations that Cossack prisoners of war were sent back to Stalin against their will by the British army at the end of the Second World War.

The Earl then published a book on the subject by Ian Mitchell, leaving himself open to the possibility of legal action. He said at the time: "That is something I have taken into account.... Should anyone contemplate suing on this book, I have access to the means to fund the very best legal advice, and I will see them in court."

Other fund donors include the Greek socialite Taki Theodoracopulos, the former MP and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth and the political columnist Simon Heffer. Donations were also made by three wealthy right-wing Americans whose identities remain unknown.

The contributions, some for as little as pounds 5, have come from more than 500 people, raising about pounds 410,000 for the fund. Mr Theodoracopulos paid pounds 50,000, and Lord Harris and Mr McWhirter are said to have given five-figure sums each. Mr Heffer donated pounds 5,000.

Anne McElvoy,

Review, page 3