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Murdoch must pay Coulson legal fees, say appeal judges


News International (NI) has been told to pay the substantial legal fees of the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson.

Overturning a High Court judgment made last year, three appeal court judges ruled that Rupert Murdoch’s media company was liable for Mr Coulson’s legal costs and expenses from the moment he was arrested on phone-hacking charges last year.

The judges also ruled that the company was liable for its former employee’s defence costs relating to charges brought this month over alleged illegal payments to public officials.

The ruling ends a year-long battle between Mr Coulson and his former employer over the legal meaning of terms in the severance contract that was drawn up when he left NI in 2007. NI halted its support for Mr Coulson in August last year.

The appeal was granted after lawyers acting for the former Downing Street communications chief offered new material to the court, including a claim that NI indemnified its former chief executive, Rebekah Brooks,  and other staff at The Sun newspaper for costs relating to criminal proceedings.

Mr Coulson, 44, has been charged with conspiracy to hack voicemails and with making illegal payments to police and public officials. In Scotland, he faces perjury charges relating to the trial of the former Scottish Socialist MSP, Tommy Sheridan.

Mr Coulson denies any wrongdoing. He was not in court yesterday to hear the ruling handed down by Lord Justices Laws, Sullivan and McCombe. Mr Coulson’s lawyers argued that News Group Newspapers, a division of NI, had tried to exclude legal support for the former NOTW editor by making the assumption that he was guilty.

Lord Justice Laws said in his judgment: “I cannot accept the judge’s view [in the initial High Court decision] that because Mr Coulson’s duties as editor comprised only lawful duties, it cannot have been identified that activities outside his lawful responsibilities would be covered by the indemnity.” 

The judge added that NI’s interpretation of Mr Coulson’s contract would not even cover him for proceedings arising out of alleged libels or contempt of court, described as “the very occupational hazards of editorship”.

Mr Coulson and Mrs Brooks, along with other NOTW executives and journalists, face trial late next year over their alleged involvement in hacking.Mr Coulson stepped down as editor in 2007 after the paper’s former royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was jailed for intercepting voicemails.

Mr Coulson was later hired as the Conservative Party’s director of communications. When Mr Cameron became Prime Minister, he brought Mr Coulson into the heart of Downing Street to lead his press team.

The exact scale of Mr Coulson’s legal bills so far are not known. However, they are constantly increasing and are likely to be substantial when the full costs of a potentially lengthy criminal trial are included.

His solicitors work for the City law firm, DLA. At a Central Criminal Court hearing earlier this year, he was represented by Clare Montgomery, QC, a barrister who also acts for the Swedish government in its battle with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.