Categorized | Civil Law

Defamation Act 2013

Defamation Act 2013

New libel laws aimed at giving better protection to people expressing their opinions came into force in England and Wales on New Year’s Day. The Defamation Act 2013 had received royal assent last April.

Trivial libel claims are targeted by the Act, which introduces a new “serious harm threshold” designed to help people understand when claims should be brought and discourage the wasting of court time. Ministers claim the new legislation “reverses the chilling effect” previous libel laws have had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate. Journalists, scientists and academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising a company, person or product in the past, the Ministry of Justice said.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: “As a result of these new laws, anyone expressing views and engaging in public debate can do so in the knowledge that the law offers them stronger protection against unjust and unfair threats of legal action. These laws coming into force represent the end of a long and hard-fought battle to ensure a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and people’s ability to protect their reputation.”

The new Act provides protection for scientists and academics publishing peer-reviewed material in scientific and academic journals, and protection for those publishing material on a matter of public interest where they reasonably believe that it is in the public interest. It introduces new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.

The Act removes the current presumption in favour of a jury trial, and introduces a new process aimed at helping potential victims of defamation online, by resolving the dispute directly with the person who has posted the statement.

It also provides increased protection to operators of websites that host user-generated content, providing they comply with the procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned. A new single-publication rule is introduced to prevent repeated claims against a publisher about the same material.

The Act targets libel tourism by tightening the test for claims involving those with little connection to England and Wales being brought before the courts.

Mike Harris, of the Libel Reform Campaign, said it was “good news for free speech,” adding: “We hope the judiciary will take note, and that in the future open debate on matters in the public interest will not be chilled by litigious oligarchs or corporations.” Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, said the Act was a “major step.” But she added: “A lot will depend on how the courts apply the new law. We will keep it under review to see that the law does give scientists the increased confidence to publish that it promises.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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