Categorized | Case Law, Civil Law

Libel law reforms

Libel law reforms

On Tuesday the government unveiled sweeping changes to the libel laws aimed at protecting freedom of speech and bringing an end to so-called ‘libel tourism’ from abroad. The declared aim is to bring libel law up to date, striking a balance between protecting people’s right to free speech – including responsible journalism and scientific debate – from unjustified libel actions, while enabling people who have genuinely been defamed to protect their reputations.

Launching the draft Defamation Bill, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society. In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism. However it is never acceptable to harm someone’s reputation without just cause, so the Bill will ensure defamation law continues to balance the needs of both sides and encourage a just outcome in libel cases.”

The draft Bill includes provision for a new ‘public interest’ defence which can be used by defendants in defamation cases. It also includes a new statutory defence of truth which will replace the current common law defence of justification, and a statutory defence of honest opinion replacing the current common law defence of fair and honest comment. There will be a requirement for claimants to demonstrate substantial harm before they can sue. ‘Libel tourism’ will be reduced by making it tougher to bring overseas claims which have little connection to the UK in the English courts. In addition there will be a single publication rule, meaning repeat claims for libel cannot be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet. The bill signals an end to the use of juries in libel trials, apart from in exceptional circumstances.

The draft bill has produced a generally favourable press. Roy Greenslade’s blog in the ‘Guardian’ gave it three cheers. He is “particularly delighted that the bill includes a ‘public interest’ defence in order to strengthen the position of people who raise concerns about malpractice or dangerous products.” Slightly more reserved is Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign, who said: “Those campaigning for libel reform will want to see cross-party recognition that the draft bill is a welcome step forward, but also that it does not yet reflect the extent of full libel reform that is required to properly protect free expression.” And Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN said: “Our libel laws allow big corporations to silence their critics even though they do not ‘suffer’ damage in the same way that a libelled individual does. Whilst we’re delighted that the government has delivered a wholesale draft bill, for the first time in a generation, it’s essential that this opportunity delivers real reform that protects free speech for writers, publishers and the citizen critic.”

A consultation paper has also been launched alongside the draft Bill, which includes questions on a number of other areas. These include the role of the internet, and a new court procedure to cut the sometimes overwhelming court costs associated with libel actions by encouraging early resolution of key issues. The consultation is open until 10 June. The full text of the Draft Defamation Bill and the Consultation can be found at:

http://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/docs/draft-defamation-bill-consultation.pdf

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 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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