Categorized | Case Law, Civil Liberties

Reform of libel laws

Reform of libel laws

Announcing last week that reforms of the law on libel will be taken forward in the next Parliament, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: “Our current libel laws need to achieve a fair balance between allowing people to protect their reputations from defamatory allegations, and ensuring that freedom of expression and the public’s right to know on matters of public interest are not unnecessarily impeded. At the moment, we believe that the balance is tilted too much in favour of the former”.

The reforms will build on the work of the Libel Working Group, which was established by the Ministry of Justice in January to consider reforms to the law of libel, and whose report was also published last week. The report focuses on four principal areas in which the case for reform has been urged with particular emphasis: libel tourism; the role of public interest considerations in establishing a defence to a libel action; the rules about multiple publication, with particular reference to the internet; and procedural and case management issues relating to the conduct of libel litigation.

Under the MoJ’s proposals, the current multiple publication rule will be replaced with a single publication rule. This will ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story repeating the same claims. Instead, claimants will only be able to bring a single action, within one year of the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary. Consideration will also be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. It is claimed that this would help address the ‘chilling effect’ that the threat of libel proceedings can sometimes have on investigative journalism, which occurs when media outlets and NGOs are cautious about publishing important information due to the threat of legal action. The government also plan to move to prevent the growth of ‘libel tourism’, when foreign claimants use English courts to make libel claims against foreign publications outside the EU which can be accessed in the UK. This will include asking the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. The aim is to head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.

Many commentators welcome the proposed reforms but feel that they do not go far enough, particularly in regard to a public interest defence, where more commitment is sought. The Libel Reform Campaign claims that our libel laws are stacked in favour of claimants, reporting that none of the 154 libel proceedings in 2008 identified in the Jackson Review of Civil Litigation Costs (see blog posted on 19 January) were won by defendants. On costs, they state that the most expensive libel action cost £3,243,980; that the average cost for the 20 most expensive trials was £753,676; and that the average cost of a libel trial in England & Wales is 140 times the European equivalent. An earlier government attempt to reduce the costs of libel cases – reducing the success fees that lawyers can charge in defamation cases from 100% to 10% – has been held up in the Lords by a “motion of regret” tabled by the former Commons speaker Lord Martin. The Ministry of Justice is planning to make parliamentary time available to prevent the order being killed off before the election.

The full text of the Libel Working Group report can be found at:-

http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/libel-working-group-report.pdf

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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