The ‘gagging’ order issued by the English High Court against the Guardian yesterday kicked off a remarkable and fast-moving story in which the media and the law were on an apparent collision course, and in which the twitteratti has laid claim to a significant influence.
On first impressions, the injunction seemed wholly undemocratic and quite bizarre, given that the subject-matter it prohibited the Guardian from publishing was public information. However, the level of opprobrium heaped on Carter-Ruck Solicitors is equally remarkable. They might not, perhaps, be deserving of sympathy, but do they deserve the criticism and vitriol, or the protest which will apparently take place outside their offices on Thursday?
By some accounts, the founder of Carter-Ruck Solicitors was primarily motivated by self-interest in pursuing expensive libel claims. But don’t lawyers act on behalf of their clients? Rational firms do not wage wars of aggression on their own behalf (after all, they will want to be paid for their work). If a lawyer is a gun, someone must pull the trigger. Today, the Guardian says:
Carter-Ruck, the law firm representing Trafigura, was accused of infringing the supremacy of parliament after it insisted that an injunction obtained against the Guardian prevented the paper from reporting a question tabled on Monday by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly. [My emphasis.]
Surely, if any such accusation is to be made, it should lie at the door of Carter-Ruck’s clients?
More importantly, lawyers don’t own the shooting gallery. The British government is free to line up the libel ducks up in a different manner and most would agree that reform of UK libel law is long overdue (even Ireland has gotten around to updating its defamation law, though we await the Privacy Act that was to be its companion).
Today, Carter-Ruck Solicitors released a statement on behalf of Trafigura which complicates the episode somewhat and it may be that the legal technicalities behind this story are not simple enough to fit in a soundbite (or tweet, for that matter). Carter-Ruck has been accused of chilling freedom of speech. Should that criticism not be leveled at the firm’s clients rather than the firm itself?
At what point do we hold lawyers to blame for the actions of their clients?