Rough Justice : When pro bono is not pro bono

Rough Justice for Tony Hunt

UPDATE: Today (Tuesday) Mr Justice MacDuff intervened in the case to halt the costs hearing against Mr Hunt  this week to allow a full appeal by  his lawyers into whether he should be liable for the £500,000 bill from Hogan Lovells.

 

This week in a cramped room in Clifford’s Inn a 69 year old former magistrate will in all likelihood be made bankrupt by the legal system. The tragic story of Tony Hunt- a man wrongly convicted then cleared of a rape charge that was not brought by his accuser, AB, until seven years after the event is written up by me in the Sunday Telegraph  this week  – see –  http://bit.ly/kJH3W1 .

The “mistake” Mr Hunt made was to seek to clear his name after spending two horrific years in the sex offenders wing of Winchester gaol by seeking damages in the civil court from the woman, egged on by her woman friend and Hampshire Police, who accused him of rape.

The case at the time became a cause celebre because it was seen by women as a ground breaking ruling to prevent men acquitted of rape pursuing their ” victim” in the courts. When he lost there was general jubilation for fear that if he had won it would put off women from bringing cases against rapists.

 But now another side has emerged that is as deeply disturbing. Tony Hunt applied for compensation as you might if you have been wrongly imprisoned – but was turned by the Home Office. Evidently you need incontrovertible proof of innocence, notoriously difficult to prove in rape cases which are rarely witnessed, to get any money.

 So he reluctantly turned to the civil courts where he was advised-despite the later judgement – that he had to sue his accuser and not the police or the Crown Prosecution Service – to get any money.

But the real shock was to come after he failed. The woman who had accused him was desperate for cash to defend herself. She had gone to her MP, Julian Lewis, who, impressed by her plight contacted the solicitor general, Vera Baird, who, in turn, rang Hogan Lovells, a very expensive  firm of international City lawyers, who decided to take her case.

 They decided to act for her free of charge or  pro bono.  But just a few weeks into the case they suddenly changed their position to acting for her under a conditional fee arrangement. This made no difference to her, but it meant that if Mr Hunt lost, he would face huge bills.

This is precisely what has happened. A year after the case they are demanding £500,000  from him – knowing that he has no funds. The fees would have been nothing like this if a Winchester lawyer had taken the case anyway, but the multi-million pound company charge a lot for solicitors and engage expensive barristers. Now they have pursued him to a costs hearing – it has taken several days so far- while at the same time winning prizes and public acclaim for pro bono work, including runner-up at the prestigious Wig and Pen awards, for this case.  Hunt’s lawyers have failed to convince the judge to take account of this curious dual approach.

These are some of Hogan Lovell’s on the record explanations for this behaviour “Any money recovered from Mr Hunt will, in the first instance, be given to AB to balance the costs she incurred with her original firm of solicitors.  Any money that might be due to us would be donated to charity.  We do not profit in any way.”
 
“It is for the Costs Court to determine what are fair and reasonable expenses for Mr Hunt to pay for the defence of AB against his legal action.  Mr Hunt can appeal the ruling of the Costs Court.”
 
“The Courts have made these cost orders against Mr Hunt because he has lost at every stage. AB has done nothing but defend herself from his claims.”
 
“At any time Mr Hunt could have stopped his litigation against AB.  The choice has always been his.”
 
“The door to negotiation has always been and remains open.” 
 
“The use of a conditional fee arrangement created a level playing field for AB to defend herself against Mr Hunt.   Each is exposed to the potential of having to pay their opponent’s costs if they lose.”
  I am no lawyer but it seems to me Hogan Lovells have tried to have their cake and eat it. They have received public plaudits for their pro bono work but are now going to bankrupt the guy under  an arrangement they haven’t actually highlighted during the Wig and Pen awards ceremony.They admit they don’t need the money, even AB , I am told, is not bankrupt. And if we follow their argument, Mr Hunt, had no right to defend himself once he realised that he was up against expensive solicitors, if he couldn’t afford the bills. Rough justice indeed.

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