Read a full transcript of the interview on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme (2 November 2011) below:
Sarah Montague (SM): At start of the year, you could scarcely look at a newspaper without reading about Christopher Jefferies. He was Joanna Yeates’ landlord and had been arrested by police investigating her murder. Tabloid newspapers described him as ‘strange’, ‘a freak’ and a ‘peeping tom’. Eight newspapers later apologised in court for publishing articles they admitted were untrue and they paid him damages. The Attorney General even charged two of them with contempt of court. Christopher Jefferies says he was only able to sue the newspapers and clear his name because he had a ‘no win, no fee’ agreement with his lawyer, and he claims that would not have been possible under the government’s planned changes to the system in England and Wales. He’s been working with the Hacked Off campaign to oppose those reforms. When I spoke to Christopher Jefferies last night, I asked him about the morning of December 30 last year when police knocked on his door and arrested him.
Chirstopher Jefferies (CJ): It was a complete surprise to me. I was arrested as I think has been quite widely reported. I was taken for three days of interview to the police station before I was finally released on police bail. Although I wasn’t actually released from police bail, and therefore technically ceased to be a suspect, for about nine weeks after my release from custody.
SM: And therefore this cloud over you, a question, a suspicion, was lifted.
CJ: That’s right and certainly those nine weeks or so from the beginning of January till the beginning of March were a particularly stressful period for me.
SM: Tell us what happened when you actually were released from police custody because during those three days you were inside, the press coverage had, to say the least, been fairly lurid.
CJ: Indeed it had, although it was considerably after I was released that I realised that, because during the time I was in custody, the solicitor who was representing me had very very wisely decided it was certainly not a good idea that I should be made aware of that. And friends after my release protected me from a great deal of it.
SM: And we should explain that during those days that for example The Sun, and I’ve got some images from the papers at the time. The Sun had a headline on its front page, ‘The strange Mr Jefferies’. The Daily Mirror had ‘Jo suspect is peeping tom.’ Here’s The Daily Star, ‘Jo landlord is a creep who freaked out school girls.’ The papers had a field day pretty much with your reputation didn’t they?
CJ: And it was precisely for that reason that I felt had no other recourse than to take the legal action which has recently been concluded against eight of the tabloid papers.
SM: Now just before we get onto that, you say that it was some time before you realised, but when did you first have a hint, because I know that you were staying with friends at the time, I understand and you were going to go out, to go into Bristol to get some clothes and some washing things. And your friends said…(interrupted by CJ)
CJ: Indeed it was at that point that the solicitor emphasised in no uncertain terms this would be an extremely bad idea and that if necessary he would come down from London to dissuade me in person, so I suppose it was at that point that I realised just how much of a household name, for all the wrong reasons, I had become.
SM: You said, you’ve expressed dismay at the government’s plans to change the laws at the moment, the laws on legal aid as they stand.
SM: Do you really think that you couldn’t have brought your case if the laws were not as they currently are, and they were as the government plans to change them.
CJ: I think there is absolutely no question that I wouldn’t have been able to take the action that I did. Because at the moment, one is able to take out a conditional fee agreement and that means that…(SM interrupts)
SM: That’s a ‘no win, no fee’.
CJ: That’s right and that means that the lawyers success fees, which are a percentage of the total legal costs of taking the action will be paid by the other side and one won’t be responsible for those. Now because these cases can be dragged out over a considerable period of time, particularly if they go to court, then legal fees are astronomic and one couldn’t begin to potentially expose one’s self to the risk of having to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in advance.
SM: But a case such as yours, was it not so exceptional, indeed you say yourself that it was your lawyer who pointed out that you should be suing the newspapers…(CJ interrupts)
CJ: Indeed and…(SM interrupts)
SM: Any lawyer’s going to take it on.
CJ: Indeed my case was exceptional. Now I’m not necessarily talking just about cases such as my own. I think what people are much more concerned about are people, for example, who have to take actions against intrusion into privacy where damages are very much less even than those awarded for libel and particularly in the case of defendants in libel cases, who of course, if they succeed in defending themselves get no damages, no damages at all.
SM: And you’re saying that somebody’s access to justice undoubtedly would be denied in those cases?
CJ: Undoubtedly, I think there is no question of that whatsoever.
SM: You as we say sued eight papers and you won an apology and damages, but you are also in the process of suing the police and that is still outstanding. Your anger seems, in large part, to come from the way you were treated by the police. Is that right?
CJ: I think I was very very disturbed, both by the way I was treated by the police, and by the way I was treated by the press…(interrupted by SM)
SM: The reason I mention this about the police is purely because it was some time in a sense before you were fully aware of what the media had done, but you were angry at the police, or at least I should say, angry at the business, the way in which arrest works, what happens to you, and you’ve written about feeling as though you were so violated it felt like rape. Can you explain what you meant by that?
CJ: When I was talking about that, I was referring to the extraordinary tissue of fabrications and misrepresentations that appeared in the press. That didn’t refer to my treatment at the hands of the police. I was merely drawing an analogy and saying that when one is arrested, one is in a particularly defenceless position, and it is then made doubly worse if onto that defenceless person is imposed the entirely defamatory, and the entirely unreal personality that was imposed on me.
SM: Christopher Jefferies, thank you very much for talking to us.
SM: Well the Ministry of Justice has told us in a statement that the government was absolutely committed to maintaining ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements for deserving cases, but they were determined to stop the abuse of the system by others pursing excessive, costly and unnecessary cases.
Listen to the interview here
(2 November 2011, 8.16 – 8.25am)