Maris was caught in a News of the World sting organised by the paper's investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, whose story alleging that the Romanian was involved in a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham was published on November 3 2002. Maris sued, under his adopted name Alin Turcu, just before the end of the one-year limitation period for libel, on October 31 2003.
The NoW submitted evidence that Maris was a petty criminal with charges or convictions in England, Italy, Germany and Romania. He was described by a senior police officer in Romania (where he had been sentenced to three prison terms) as "a very intelligent criminal". Few would argue that he was anything other than an unsavoury individual, but the possession of a flawed character does not bar someone from suing for libel. The allegation that he was involved in a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham was a serious one, which the well-known libel lawyer David Price was prepared to contest on a a conditional fee arrangement (CFA).
"Our client has been involved in petty and non-violent criminality in the past," says Price, "but that did not justify what was written about him. He was and remains genuinely upset about what happened to him."
Maris and four other men were charged over the alleged plot but the trial collapsed when the Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence.
Mr Justice Eady pointed out that the libel claim brought by Maris was "unusual" not merely because of his false identity, but also because he was absent from the trial and did not even produce a witness statement outlining his side of the story. But, as the judge said, Maris was "able to pursue his claim purely because Mr Price has been prepared to act on the basis of a conditional fee agreement". Many observers feel that the regime that enabled Maris to bring his claim needs to be radically overhauled. Under a CFA, if a claimant's lawyer loses, he is paid nothing. But if he wins he gets not only his normal costs but a "success fee" on top, paid by the losing newspaper. In high-risk cases, this can amount to a 100% mark-up on costs, which in the case of some London libel firms can result in a final return of £800 or £900 an hour. A claimant can take out insurance to cover the defendant's costs if he loses, but many cannot afford the high premiums. If there is no insurance, winning newspapers can be left whistling in the wind for their costs. If the claimant insures and wins, the newspaper has to pay back the cost of the premium as well as up to double the costs.
The evidence against Maris persuaded the NoW's legal manager, Tom Crone, that the paper should stand by its story. "We were astonished that he sued," says Crone. "Tape-recorded evidence demonstrated that he was quite prepared to take part in conversations about criminal activities, including the Beckham kidnap. The timing of the operation was discussed, as was the possibility of obtaining several million pounds at short notice. This was alleged to be 'idle pub banter'. We knew that this was untenable, and that we would defend the claim on the basis that what we published was true."
Maris did not reveal his true identity to Price until early this February. Price then lost contact with his client. As the judge summed up the situation, "at the commencement of the trial, [Maris] remained out of touch and [Price] was only able to proceed on the basis of past instructions". Telephone contact was resumed during the trial's first week but still no witness statement was forthcoming.
The trial went ahead with Price insisting that although his client might be unsavoury, he still had rights - to access to the courts, and to protect his reputation. Rejecting the claim, Mr Justice Eady found that although not all the allegations were correct - there was no "gang", Maris was not a major player with a surveillance role and the men were not "on the brink" of carrying out the kidnap - the "sting" of the libel was true. He drew attention to the "wholly unenviable" situation faced by the NoW, "who were denied the opportunity not only of cross-examining [Maris] but also of even seeing evidence from him denying their published allegations".
The judge highlighted what has been described as "the ransom factor" underpinning libel CFAs. The NoW had to run up significant costs to defend the claim, with no likelihood of recovery if it was successful given Maris's lack of funds. But had he won, the paper would have been liable to pay not only damages and his lawyers' normal costs, but their success fee as well. The bigger the risk, the bigger the success fee, and with costs at around £200,000 for Price and £400,000 for the NoW's lawyers, if Maris had succeeded the newspaper's total liability could have been not far short of £1m.
The judge described the ransom factor as "inherent" in the CFA system. He referred to the court of appeal's interim ruling last year in a libel claim brought by Adam Musa King against the Sunday Telegraph, which he claimed wrongly accused him of terrorist links. The court of appeal questioned the "appropriateness" of making a losing defendant pay up to twice the "reasonable and proportionate" costs of the claimant. Lord Justice Brooke concluded that "the obvious unfairness of such a system is bound to have a chilling effect on a newspaper exercising its right to freedom of expression".
Last month the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard won a libel action brought on a CFA basis by the police officer who led the investigation into false allegations of sexual assault against Neil and Christine Hamilton. Christopher Miller claimed the newspaper articles portrayed him as grossly incompetent but Mr Justice Eady ruled that they were "substantially true". Had the newspapers lost, they would have faced a bill for costs running into millions. Liz Hartley, a media lawyer with Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, who represented the newspapers, says: "The assessment of risk in CFA libel claims can make claimant lawyers gamble that the media will pay up rather than face the double whammy of the success fee and paying the claimant's insurance premium."
Andy Coulson, the NoW's editor, is anxious that something be done about the no-win, no-fee system. "This case was about as absurd as you can get and highlights what an injustice CFAs are. We don't know how many genuine examples there are of poor claimants winning access to justice as a result of the CFA system, but we do know that thanks to CFAs a fair few lawyers have won very direct access to large lumps of cash."
The Department for Constitutional Affairs has initiated a review into CFAs and Coulson, for one, hopes that this will result in "major changes to the system, so that if CFAs are not abolished, some way of capping costs is introduced".
Price, who says that Maris is "devastated" by last week's judgment and has instructed him to appeal, is adamant that his client's claim was meritorious and his costs were reasonable. "We would never take a defamation claim on a CFA basis unless we believed in it," he says. "We run CFAs in a responsible, moral way and believe that they enable access to justice to poor people.
"We litigated this case in the most proportionate manner possible and this is reflected in our costs, which are less than half the NoW's. If a newspaper is faced with an impecunious claimant it should also be looking to its lawyers to litigate in the most proportionate manner possible. Instead it is the national media that hires the most expensive lawyers and has the largest legal teams."
· Alex Wade is a freelance journalist and newspaper lawyer. He is currently completing a short-term stint in the legal department of the News of the World, during which he had no involvement in the Maris case.