Last month your team was joined by a silk from Matrix Chambers. She recently chaired a Forum with The Times on whether the new law of privacy is strangling a free press. Having appeared in a number of high profile defamation/privacy cases, what are your views on this?
It has the potential to rewrite large parts of our law of freedom of speech. The concern is that it is a “Judge made” law and the argument in the run up to the Human Rights Act 1998 was, in part, about this, ie that judges would be given tools to make privacy law rather than Parliament. In some cases it is a good thing in the real sense of private (eg family) life, but the problem is that a lot of celebrity claimants are involved in privacy cases and the development of the law is encouraged by lawyers who characterise coverage of celebrities’ daily lives as an invasion of privacy. Privacy is becoming a replacement for defamation and can develop into all sorts of other areas. It is interesting from a legal viewpoint but hard for the media to know where they stand; it will chill freedom of expression, so on balance it is not a good thing.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2008 Law Society “Barrister of the Year” Excellence Award. How important is that kind of recognition?
Without trying to sound self-righteous it is important. My work as a barrister is driven by my wish to pursue human rights values and to work with others of similar views. The panel of judges looked at the cases people had done and based the award on individual commitment and the value of the work being done. I was happy about the recognition for the importance of the kind of work I have done on freedom of speech cases.
As well as covering defamation/privacy, you also head the employment team. Has the economic climate had an impact on your areas?
In media law it has had an effect. All media companies are facing a drop in advertising revenue, with the problems for the traditional media being compounded by the public migrating to new media. An example is the Susan Boyle clips which went out on YouTube, the TV company was not able to control its commercial interest in the material. The old media can’t keep up with new media innovations. There is an upturn in internet related work for the media Bar but with ad revenues falling there is less money to spend on legal fees.
In employment law, employees and trade unions have been squeezed financially over recent years. Work in this area is less affected by the recession although there may be more work arising from redundancies and re-organisation. There has been a rise in discrimination work especially on equal pay claims. New legislation will increase litigation, as does any legislation that pushes boundaries.
How do you think chambers is shaped for the changing landscape at the Bar?
I think we are in shape for it but there are differing views about the extent we can capitalise on deregulation. We are unusual in that we are a big set with a number of different practice areas so inevitably we have different issues amongst the teams. In some of our work we are very much a referral practice whereas in others there may be a very strong case for barristers and solicitors working under the same roof. We intend to be at the forefront of change – we are modernisers and it was on that basis that chambers was founded in 1990. Many of the things we did then were cutting edge at the time and we continue to be an innovative set today.
What has been your most challenging case and why?
I did a case in 2000 which The Guardian called the first great libel case of the 21st century. I acted for the publishers of a magazine who investigated some of the holding camps in Bosnia. ITN had previously reported that the holding camps were in fact death camps and this led to the Bush Administration and UN going into Bosnia. There is a famous image of an emaciated Bosnian Muslim man with his shirt off up against a wire fence, apparently inside the camp. However the magazine journalist realised that that shot was taken from inside the compound and the man was standing in a field surrounding the camp. On that basis they suggested this was not a death camp and that ITN’s report was wrong. ITN sued for libel and the whole argument turned on this image. ITN won the case as the jury decided they had not misrepresented what was happening in the camp. Although I was for the losing party it was a fascinating case as it shed light on what was going on in the camp.
What are the key practice areas of focus at the moment?
International human rights will be the next big push as so many members do work abroad: human right specialists are in demand all around the world. We are in an unusual position in that we are a domestic/international practice, so can plead cases from other countries in English before the ECtHR; there is a big market for doing that. In the long term we would consider setting up in other parts of Europe and building partnership arrangements with NGOs and local human rights firms.
Gavin Millar QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Anil Shah, LPA Legal