Did ‘no win, no fee’ topple the News of the World?

It’s unlikely that many lawyers will be mourning the demise of the News of the World.

It was often the scourge of the legal profession and the much maligned ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements which, heaven forbid, gave the less well-off a chance of getting some justice.

How ironic then to think that it was lawyers and that same ‘no win, no fee’ system that brought the News of the World crumbling down.

Far fetched? Not really. Rupert Murdoch may have fired the shot that put the NoW out of its misery but it was lawyers and ‘no win, no fee’ that loaded the gun.

At least, that is the claim of Mark Lewis, the lawyer who first uncovered phone hacking and who has since represented several victims, including the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Mr Lewis told the Guardian this week that if it weren’t for ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements, the News of the World would still be on the news stands every Sunday.

And he has a point.

After all, the public and the politicians didn’t take phone hacking too seriously when it only seemed to involve the rich and famous such as actors and sportsmen.

It was only when stories came out that phone hacking had spread to victims of crime that the alarm bells really started to ring.

When it was revealed that the phones of Milly Dowler and victims of the London bombings may have been hacked, it led to a wave of revulsion that even the Murdoch empire could not withstand.

The point Mr Lewis makes is that many of those families did not have the resources to take legal action against the NoW. Without no win, no fee they would never have been able to take on such a powerful newspaper and bring it to account.

As a result we may never have learnt the grotesque extent of the scandal and the NoW might have been able to ride out the storm.

Mr Lewis has represented more than 50 people pursuing phone hacking claims so he speaks with some authority. He told the Guardian: ‘Many papers, including the Sun and the News of the World, have been having a go at “greedy lawyers”, saying they want to get rid of ‘no win, no fee’ agreements. Their agenda has been to get rid of them. But the real issue is about access to justice.’

It certainly is about access to justice. Just imagine if all this had happened after ‘no win, no fee’ had been abolished or watered down to the point where it was ineffective. The less well off could not have afforded to take action.

And consider this. The News of the World paid the legal fees of one of its employees who was convicted of phone hacking.

It all seems so strange. We are planning to remove a system that allows innocent people to protect themselves but leave in place a system that allows a powerful company to fund the defence of the guilty.

Lawyers should make the most of this story.

The government is on the ropes over this and it does listen to public opinion. When Kenneth Clarke made a careless off the cuff remark in a radio interview suggesting that some rapes were less serious than others, all hell broke loose.

He only just managed to cling on to his job as justice secretary and his plans to save money by giving some criminals shorter sentences was unceremoniously dumped.

For too long the tabloid press has trotted out the tired old clichés about compensation culture, but now the world has changed. All newspapers have been tarnished by the phone-hacking scandal and they’re not so cocky any more.

It will be a long time before they wield the same power over politicians and so the debate can change focus. Lawyers and the organisations that represent them should recognise this and make sure that change of focus takes place.

Kenneth Clarke should be bombarded with questions about why he wants to destroy a system that helped to expose the sickening corruption at the News of the World.

He would not like that question and would struggle to provide a convincing answer.

First published in the Law Gazette in 2011