The story tobacco firms don't want to hear

Smokers' claim for compensation set to go ahead as threat of huge legal costs is lifted. Clare Garner reports
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British smokers who have contracted lung cancer yesterday cleared another crucial legal hurdle in their battle to win compensation from cigarette manufacturers.

Lawyers representing the smokers were given reassurance in the High Court that if they lose their case they will not be liable for huge legal costs. The decision - the first major one before the courts on conditional fee agreements - endorsed the no-win, no-fee agreement.

Furthermore, the gagging order which prevented the plaintiffs from talking publicly about their cases was lifted, adding to what the solicitor Martyn Day, of Leigh, Day and Co, described as "a good day as far as justice for the ordinary British individual is concerned".

Mr Day said the ruling had "cleared the clouds" which the defendants, Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco, had put over the case in terms of the plaintiffs having to pay the costs.

"As a result I'm pleased to say that the whole of the legal team is happy with the idea that we continue to act for this group of plaintiffs and pursue the case with full vigour to trial as soon as possible."

Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco had argued that because the solicitors - Leigh Day and Co and Irwin Mitchell - and the barristers are using a Conditional Fee Agreement, they are intimately involved and therefore liable for costs. But Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Aldous and Lord Justice Chadwick said that although the lawyers were acting under a no-win, no-fee agreement, they did not need any special protection. They were not given a debarring order exempting them from future legal costs estimated at up to pounds 9m.

John Pickering, one of the solicitors at Irwin Mitchell, welcomed the judges' confirmation that their team would be in exactly the same position as advisers on Legal Aid.

He said: "We have no greater or lesser risk as to legal costs. Hence the spectre of us being pursued by the tobacco companies has been lifted from us,"

Legal experts said yesterday that, had the the lawyers lost outright on the liability issue, it would have almost certainly have halted litigation against tobacco companies in the foreseeable future. It would also have had a damaging effect on the Government's plans to expand "no-win, no-fee" agreements.

At present, 43 smokers have issued writs, but more are expected to follow suit. The youngest plaintiff, a 49-year-old mother, died in December.

A spokesman for the anti-smoking pressure group Ash called on other living victims of lung cancer from cigarette smoking who wish to join the action to contact Ash.

One of the plaintiffs, 76-year-old Ernest Jones, from Croydon, south London, was in the High Court for the ruling. He had started smoking when he was 13, in 1934; his father had told him that smoking would help him to grow. For 52 years he smoked between 20 and 40 a day.

He stopped six months before he was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 1986; doctors gave him just 12 months to live. He is now clear of cancer but has endured 35 operations, including having half a lung removed. "I'm trying to keep afloat - that's all I can say," he said.