Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced that the government believes the case for libel reform has been made, and that the Ministry of Justice will now move to make reforms to England’s defamation laws, potentially with a Libel Reform Bill.
Commenting on the findings of the Ministry of Justice libel working group, Straw said the government would seek to address the issues of single publication, the strengthening of a public interest defence, and procedural changes to address issues such as early definitions of meaning and libel tourism.
Libel reform campaigners meet at the Houses of Parliament today in a mass lobby of MPs.
Full Justice Secretary statement:
REFORM OF LIBEL LAWS WILL PROTECT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Reforms of the law on libel to tackle libel tourism, improve the rules covering defamation on the internet and offer greater protection for investigative journalism, will be taken forward in the next Parliament, Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced today.
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 is being published today. They will also build on responses to the recent MoJ consultation on libel on the internet, the Government response to which is also being published.
Under the 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 – for example, when an article published by one outlet is held on an online archive. 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 be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. This will 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 will also 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. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.
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 changes announced today, together with other steps already taken by the Government, will redress this imbalance. Replacing the multiple publication rule will ensure that people cannot take court action every time the same article is downloaded, preventing costly and unnecessary legal actions and the uncertainty for publishers of open-ended liability.
“The Government is considering whether a statutory public interest defence would help journalists and other groups who investigate matters of public importance, who are sometimes prevented from making their findings known because of the threat of legal action.”
The changes could potentially be introduced in a proposed Libel Reform Bill in the next Parliament.