Judge blocks sale of Aitken letters

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The Independent Online
THE SALE of the private letters of the jailed former Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken by his bankruptcy trustees was blocked yesterday by a High Court judge, who described the plan as "repugnant" and a "gross invasion of privacy".

Mr Justice Rattee said the trustees had planned to put up for auction "to the highest bidder" Aitken's correspondence with heads of state and politicians to help to pay his creditors.

The judge, who was dealing with the first application by a trustee to try to sell private correspondence, said: "Is it really what Parliament envisaged, by passing the Insolvency Act, that the effect should be that a bankrupt person's correspondence should be available for publication all over the world? In my opinion the concept of such a gross invasion of privacy is repugnant."

Aitken, 57, was declared bankrupt in May after his main creditors, The Guardian and Granada Television, refused to accept his pounds 840,000 settlement offer over his libel case court costs.

The former MP had resigned in 1995 to fight a libel action against them, which he abandoned after a jury heard he had been lying over a visit to the Ritz Hotel in Paris. He was subsequently jailed for 18 months at the Old Bailey for perjury.

The trustees, Baker Tilly, who say they have already raised pounds 40,000 from Aitken's estate, took possession of nine boxes of his letters stored at a London office. Valuers have said that they could be worth pounds 100,000 if sold to the media.

The judge said Aitken objected to the sale, claiming the letters were his personal property and were not relevant to his estate or financial affairs.But Baker Tilly claimed that correspondence with parliamentary colleagues, including prime ministers, was part of his estate which could be sold to help to pay creditors under the terms of the Insolvency Act.

Philip Marshall, representing the trustees in court, claimed the letters are property and therefore part of the estate, and asked for a declaration to sell them. The judge said: "Mr Marshall did not shirk from the implications of that argument. If it is right, bankruptcy will expose personal correspondence of any bankrupt to the risk of exploitation. That implication is unattractive."

The judge added that any document having value could be said to be property under the terms of the Insolvency Act, but there were "clearly established exceptions", especially involving personal items or those which may damage personal reputations. He said this included "even a famous bankrupt whose personal correspondence may be worth a considerable sum to the media". The judge added: "In my judgment the correspondence of Mr Aitken does not form part of the estate for bankruptcy purposes."

Both parties were ordered to pay their own costs, which in the case of the trustees was put at pounds 20,000. This money will be paid from the bankruptcy estate. Aitken was represented free of charge after being granted legal aid one day before the hearing.