London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen (HJA) has this week received an apology and “substantial” damages from The Times newspaper over a front-page article which claimed the firm was being sued by a former client for negligence in relation to a MMR vaccine claim.
HJA issued proceedings for libel and malicious falsehood after The Times refused to take down the article from its website or publish a correction.
The article claimed that a former client, Matthew McCafferty, was set to sue the firm for negligence and ‘unjust enrichment as officers of the court’ for bringing a claim that it knew was hopeless.
In a statement read out in open court, HJA’s counsel Justin Rushbrooke QC recorded that despite threats of action, no proceedings have to date been issued. He said: “At the time of the article the claimant had informed Mr McCafferty’s lawyers that any proceedings would be robustly defended. Furthermore it categorically rejects any suggestion that it was guilty of negligence, in particular the allegation that it pursued a case which it knew or should have known was hopeless, or that its lawyers improperly enriched themselves out of public funds.
“The true position is that in 1998 legal aid funding was granted to Hodge Jones & Allen for the purposes of investigating with experts a claim for damages on behalf of many children who were suffering from conditions such as autism following the administration of the MMR vaccine.
“Mr McCafferty instructed the claimant in 2000 and had the benefit of these investigations. Whilst the possibility of a causal link between MMR and autism was subsequently widely discredited, on the basis of the expert evidence then available there was absolutely no reason to conclude at the time that such claims were hopeless.”
The Times’ counsel, Clara Hamer, concurred with the statement and apologised unreservedly in open court for any damage caused to HJA or to its reputation by the article.
HJA senior partner Patrick Allen said: “Our success as a law firm depends on our skill, competence and integrity, so to have these called into question in such a high-profile manner was both disturbing and unacceptable. Naturally, I am pleased that this matter is now resolved but maintain that such an article should never have been published in the first place.”
This is the second time in six months that the firm has won an apology and damages from The Times. In April, it settled with the newspaper following an article over the firm’s contribution to compensation proposals for Magdalene laundries victims in Ireland.
Mr Allen said: “It was particularly shocking that the [second] article appeared on the front page, and only a matter of weeks after the settlement of our libel claim against the newspaper for the Magdalene laundries article.”