Ruling

03690-18 Leigh Day v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      14th December 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03690-18 Leigh Day v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Leigh Day complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Cheat of War” published on 29 May 2018.

2. The article reported that the complainant had “continued to pursue” a claim of mistreatment by British soldiers in Iraq after the claimant had admitted his claim was fraudulent. It stated that the whistle-blower had publicly admitted making a fraudulent claim for compensation in February, but that his case remained among the 450 alleged mistreatment cases confirmed by the complainant in April. It included quotations from the whistle-blower who said “It’s incredible they are pursuing this claim when they know it’s false. I have been clear – I do not want to sue the MoD. What more do they want?”, and referred to the complainant’s tactics as “dirty tricks for dirty money”. It reported that “Basim withdrew consent for Leigh Day to represent him last week”. The article also included a statement from the complainant, stating that, “We no longer act for [the claimant]. We are following set procedures. We will be applying at the next case management conference to come off the record as his lawyers.”

3. The article was also published online with the headline, “Cheat of war Tank-chasing lawyers still pursing case of mistreatment by British soldiers despite ‘victim’ admitting lies”. It was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that the whistle-blower had dropped his claim, and that the firm was now pursing this contrary to his instructions, in full knowledge that the claim was falsified. It said that this gave the misleading impression that the firm was acting dishonestly for its own financial gain.

5. It said that the firm had been instructed by more than 600 Iraqis in their claims against the Ministry of Defence. In January 2018 the newspaper had contacted the firm and said that it had conducted an interview with the whistle-blower, who had admitted that his own claim, and the claims of others, were false. The firm said that it had responded at length to the claims, making clear that it had a duty of confidentiality to its client. An article was then published in February, in which the whistle-blower waived his right to anonymity and alleged that he had falsified his claim to try and receive compensation from the MoD. It said that this follow up article, which criticised the actions that the firm had taken since the whistle-blower publicly made these claims, gave an inaccurate and distorted impression of the current status of this claim and the actions the firm had taken since the publication of the February article.  

6. It said that the article implied that this claim was one that the firm was pursuing to settlement.  It said that this was inaccurate – it was in a residual category of claims the firm had not fully assessed. It said that this was because it had been trying to contact the claimant regarding the status of his claim. As reported in the article, the complainant had told the newspaper pre-publication that it no longer acted for this client, and was following the set procedures to officially come off the record as his solicitor. It said that it had taken steps following the publication of the February article, to contact the whistle-blower about his public claims, and to stop acting for him in this claim. It said that based on what the whistle-blower had publicly stated it was not possible for the firm to unilaterally cease to act for the client, and that it had not received confirmation from him that he no longer wished to pursue his claim at the time of publication. In these circumstances, the firm said that the claimant’s quotations in the article, which stated that “it is incredible they are pursuing this claim… I have been clear – I do not want to sue the MoD”, suggested that he had explicitly told the complainant he did not wish to pursue the case further, but that the firm had continued the claim regardless. It was also concerned that the use of the term “tank chasing lawyers” and “dirty tricks for dirty money” suggested that the firm was acting dishonestly for financial gain, which was not true.

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that this claim was still listed at the High Court, months after the claimant had allegedly admitted his claim was fraudulent, and it was entitled to criticise this.

8. It said that while this claim was not one of the cases that the complainant had confirmed to the court it was pursuing to settlement, it was one of the additional cases the newspaper believed the firm had demanded extra information from the Ministry of Defence in relation to. It did not accept that the complainant had followed the set procedures for coming off the record in circumstances where the claimant had publicly declared his allegations were false. It said that in such circumstances, the firm’s duty to the court outweighed its duty to its client. The newspaper said that the firm should have immediately informed the court once it became aware that the court may be being misled, and should have refused to act for its client due to the nature of his public disclosure. It outlined the procedure it believed the complainant should have followed. As the case remained on the court record for several months after the initial disclosure, it said it was accurate for the article to state that it was “pursuing” and “continuing” the case. It said that the article had included the complainant’s statement on the matter, and disputed the complainant’s claim that the article gave a misleading impression of the complainant’s involvement.

9. Regardless, the newspaper offered to remove the quotation “dirty tricks for dirty money” from the online article, and offered to publish the following clarification on page two and as a footnote to the online article:

Following our article “Cheat of War” (Tuesday 29 May), Leigh Day have asked us to reiterate that once they were made aware of the allegations in the Sun that [the claimant] had falsified elements of his claim, they no longer act for him. However, due to set procedure they have been unable to come off the record as his lawyers, but will be doing so at the next court hearing.

Relevant Code provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

Findings of the Committee

11. The article criticised the speed with which the complainant had discontinued the claimant’s case following his public disclosure. Specifically, it criticised the complainant for having “continued to pursue” a claim that it knew was false. The newspaper had sought to argue that the fact that the claimant’s case remained lodged with the High Court justified its characterisation of the complainant’s actions. However, the claim was not one that the complainant had confirmed it would be seeking to pursue to settlement. It had appeared on the court document in a distinct, residual category, as the complainant had been unable to contact its client, and had not received formal instructions as to how he wished to proceed. Also, as the complainant had made clear in pre-publication correspondence, the firm no longer acted for the claimant at the time of publication, and were following the set procedures to cease to act as his representative.

12. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the sub-headline claim that, “lawyers continue case”, and the claim that the firm “continued to pursue” the matter, reported in the body of the article, suggested that the claim was being actively pursued to settlement by the complainant. The newspaper was entitled to present criticism of the time taken by the complainant to cease to act for the claimant, including the MoD’s view that it was “shameful Leigh Day did not immediately drop these claims”. However, it had presented the status of the claim, and the actions of the complainant during this time, in a distorted manner. Reporting that the complainant had been pursuing the claim from January until the complainant ceased to act for the claimant a week before publication, without further clarification of the status of the claim during this time, represented a failure to take care not to publish distorted information in breach of Clause 1(i). Further, this was a significant distortion, as it seriously misrepresented the status of the claim and suggested that the complainant had been actively furthering a case it knew to be false, which was not correct. This required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

13. The correction offered by the newspaper reiterated the complainant’s position that included in the article. It did not make clear that the complainant had not been actively pursuing the claim following the publication of the February article.  In these circumstances, the Committee considered that there was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

14. The article had made clear that the claimant had withdrawn his consent for the complainant to act for him the week before publication. It also included the complainant’s statement, confirming that it no longer acted for the claimant and was following the set procedures to come off the court record. The article did not suggest that the complainant was acting without instructions, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The complainant had also raised concern that the article suggested that it had acted dishonestly for financial gain. The Committee considered that many of the article’s claims of impropriety, including the headline, “Cheat of War”, related to the claimant in this case, not the firm. The only specific references to the firm were the newspaper’s characterisation of them as “tank-chasing lawyers” and the direct quotation from the claimant, who referred to their actions as “dirty tricks for dirty money”. The reference to the complainant as “tank-chasing” was clearly the newspaper’s characterisation of the firm’s actions. While the complainant clearly disagreed with this, the complainant represented a large number of clients in their claims against the MoD, and was known for its work in this specific area of law. In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to characterise its actions in this way, and doing so was not misleading in breach of Clause 1. Also, the claim “dirty tricks for dirty money” was clearly attributed to the claimant who had been interviewed for the article. The newspaper had taken care to present this as his claim, and doing so did not give rise to a breach of Clause 1. Overall, the Committee did not consider that the article’s characterisation of the firm’s actions and motivations was misleading so as to give rise to a breach of Clause 1. 

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action required

17. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

18. In this case, the Committee considered that the newspaper had been entitled to criticise the actions of the complainant, and the period of time it took the firm to stop officially acting for the claimant. In this context, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which made clear that the complainant had not been actively pursuing this claim, but had been attempting to contact the claimant to receive instructions.

19. The correction should appear in print in the Corrections and Clarifications column, and as a footnote correction to the online article. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 30/05/2018

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/10/2018