The Sun settles solicitor’s libel claim for alleging she touted legal aid ‘asylum price list’ to migrants
The Sun has settled a defamation claim by the solicitor Uma Rajasundram for a story about her firm’s work for detained asylum seekers represented under a legal aid duty solicitor scheme.
Ms Rajasundram and her firm, Milestone Solicitors, instructed Paul Turner of Barnes Harrild & Dyer and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers in the claim against News Group Newspapers, the publishers of The Sun.
The story suggested that her firm were activist lawyers who were shamelessly touting an ‘asylum price list’ of legal aid fees for migrants arriving by small boat.
In resolution of the claim, The Sun first removed all its reader comments under the article on its website, and in addition removed all the comments below an earlier article about Milestone and two other firms. It next agreed to take down the article altogether and not to republish it. The claim has now finally settled with The Sun’s publication of a statement in the newspaper and its website setting out the true position. The published statement includes confirmation that “We did not and do not suggest that Ms Rajasundram and colleagues act in any way outside the law or professional conduct”. The Sun has also reached a financial settlement with Ms Rajasundram involving a very substantial five figure sum to reimburse her for her costs occasioned by the claim.
The article, billed as an ‘EXCLUSIVE’ by The Sun, was a page lead in the print edition of The Sun on Sunday edition of 30 August 2020 under the banner headline “ASYLUM PRICE LIST Lawyers’ legal aid charges for migrant cases” and on The Sun’s website, also presented as an exclusive, with the headline “ASYLUM PRICE LIST ‘Activist’ lawyers’ ‘shameless touting’ price list to help migrants stay in the UK”.
The article began: “A LAW firm is accused of shamelessly touting a price list to help migrants stay in the UK. Officials blasted “activist lawyers” for listing charges that will cost taxpayers thousands in legal aid.” It then identified some of the alleged fees before quoting a “Whitehall source” who “slammed “activist lawyers chasing dinghies to get taxpayers’ cash for keeping illegal immigrants in our country” and a Tory MP claiming their actions were "“despicable” as they claimed taxpayers’ cash after “touting for business””. It also quoted Home Secretary Priti Patel as being “furious” at the representation supplied by Milestone and two other firms.
On its website, The Sun illustrated its article with a full-length photograph of Ms Rajasundram wearing a sari, with the caption “Milestone Solicitors' boss Uma Devi Rajasundram, 52”, along with pictures and a video captioned “Angry Greek islanders intercept and turn away dinghy filled with migrants from Turkey”.
The Sun subsequently published almost 150 reader comments underneath the article, many of which were racist and threatening against Ms Rajasundram and her staff. One comment visible directly underneath the text of the article (i.e. without needing any click to reveal it) expressed “hope something really nasty happens to these lawyers”. Others used her photograph and name, as published in the article, to allege that she and her staff were foreign and therefore suspect.
The libel and data protection Claim
Ms Rajasundram maintained that the Sun’s accusation that Milestone was touting a price list of legal aid fees for migrants was completely wrong. The fees presented in the article as legal aid charges actually came from a list of private immigration fees that Milestone published on its website pursuant to solicitors’ transparency rules. The page had no relevance to Milestone’s legal aid work for detainees, which arose from advice surgeries at immigration removal centres on a rota system under their legal aid contract. If any detainee appeared to have a meritorious case, Milestone were required to explore and pursue it. It was pointed out in the claim that the legally aided provision of legal advice to detainees in a removal centre actually assists the UK Government to comply with its international human rights obligations and its domestic law obligations to respect the rule of law.
Ms Rajasundram also claimed that The Sun was liable in both defamation and data protection for the publication of its reader comments on the same URL as the article. She argued that it was consistent with Article 10 that The Sun should be held responsible as a commercial news publisher. She pointed out that it had published an article on the same topic just three days previously which had already generated a stream of hateful comments. She contended that The Sun was therefore on clear notice that how it presented and illustrated the article was likely to generate more hateful comments.
In response to the claim, The Sun agreed to remove the entirety of the hundreds of comments underneath the article and underneath the article that it had published three days earlier.
In response to the claim, it subsequently “accept[ed] that some readers would have understood from the articles that the sums referred to … are sums which were claimed for legal aid” and that “the articles had confused the two types of fee”.
In its further steps to settle the claim, The Sun agreed to take down the entire article and that it would not republish it. It also accepted that “There is no suggestion that the challenges [Milestone] have brought [against their clients’ removal] were improper or, in the case of legal proceedings, an abuse of process” and “they have pursued their clients’ cases proficiently, achieving favourable outcomes”.
In final settlement of the claim, The Sun has published a statement in its print edition and on its website (where it is to remain) which makes clear that the fees that featured in the article “are for private clients only, not for legal aid” and concludes that:
“We did not and do not suggest that Ms Rajasundram and colleagues act in any way outside the law or professional conduct and we are happy again to make this clear to readers.”
Commenting on The Sun’s settlement of the libel claim, Ms Rajasundram said:
“What The Sun falsely claimed about my firm and I would have involved a serious breach of our professional ethics. Instead, this was unprofessional reporting. The gratuitous way that it chose to illustrate the article with a photo of me in a sari made the threatening and racist comments that it published underneath the article only too predictable, and left my team fearing for their safety.
This article was an example of unjustified newspaper attacks on legal aid lawyers working hard to secure access to justice for the most vulnerable in society. Legal aid solicitors should not have to face such vitriol just for doing their job. I hope this claim, and what it has cost The Sun to settle it, will help discourage irresponsible journalism that misrepresents our work. I would like to thank our brilliant legal team who have battled for well over a year to ensure this outcome.”