'Libel tourists' come to sue, grab it and run

Click to follow
London may or may not be the capital of cool, but it is certainly the capital of libel actions.

Prominent figures around the world, in the United States and especially Russia, are queueing up to bring defamation cases to Britain, even if the actions appear to have only a passing connection with this country. The attraction is the relative ease of success in English libel law.

The eminent barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, has described the city as a "Mecca" for prospective litigants. "In America they refer to it as a 'place named Sue'."

However, there are signs that British judges are becoming reluctant to allow so-called "forum shopping" libel actions in their courts. Last Tuesday Mr Justice Morland struck out a defamation action by Texan oil billionaire Oscar Wyatt - stepfather of the Duchess of York's friend Steve Wyatt - against the American business magazine Forbes.

Mr Wyatt, of oil giant Coastal Corp, claimed that because his son Steve and his wife lived in Britain, and he came to visit them, and because Steve had been friends with the Duchess, he had legitimate reason to bring the action in this country.

The offending article, however, published on 30 December last year and called "Saddam's Pal, Oscar" had no British flavour, according to Forbes's solicitor in the case, David Hooper of law firm Biddle. "It was naked forum shopping," said Mr Hooper. "The question now being considered is whether the issue of justice is served in an action taking place here." One problem for defendants was the cost and difficulty of bringing relevant witnesses from another country, he said. There was no obligation for witnesses to attend.

In another case, Russian politician and businessman Boris Berezovsky sought to bring a libel action in the London High Court against Forbes over a different article in the same edition. His action, too, was struck down, although as with Mr Wyatt he was given leave to appeal.

Solicitor Mark Stephens said he was handling six or seven libel actions from Russian business people. He believes British courts need to realise that many forum shoppers are "coming here to thwart rather than obtain" justice. Mr Stephens said: "They are trying to get some kind of order from a British court - which are held in high regard - to take back and wave about at home."

The attraction is not so much the size of UK libel awards - which, though substantial, are dwindling and dwarfed by some US cases - but the relative ease of proof. Crucial factors here are that the burden is on the defendant to prove there is no libel, or that it is justified, and that Britain has no "public figure" defence.

In the US, where this defence exists, a "public figure" plaintiff has to show malice by the author to succeed. Some lawyers believe the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law may help bring reform.

Mr Nigel Tait, a partner of solicitors Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, which represented Mr Wyatt and Mr Berezovsky, said Mr Wyatt - who sued on the British publication of the magazine only - had not yet decided whether to appeal.

He said the Texan had a "good point" in asserting that if Forbes magazine wanted the commercial benefits of subscriptions in this country, then they had to risk the same country's libel laws.