The UK government’s Defamation Bill goes to the House of Lords for its second reading debate today. Michael Harris explains why it’s vital that the government acts to protect free speech
As over 50 international human rights NGOs have pointed out in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron today, a damning report by the UN Human Rights Committee on English libel law spurred the calls for action to change the law. But with the government’s defamation bill merely codifying important sections of the law in statute, it remains to be seen whether they will deliver on the commitments made by the coalition parties at the last general election. The Libel Reform Campaign is calling for the House of Lords to make substantive amendments to the bill, in particular a new public interest defence and amendments to the “responsible journalism” defence; a new clause to strike out actions by corporations, an amendment forcing early strike out of trivial cases and improvements on regulations covering the internet. It’s time to get this right.
We need a public interest defence – now
Without a public interest defence in the Bill, this legislation will fall far short of initial expectations. Previous libel defendants Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst have told the campaign that the provisions in this Bill would have done nothing to protect them in their cases. Clause 4 of the bill as it stands is merely the codification of a version of the existing Reynolds “responsible journalism” defence — it is not a public interest defence. In the Reynolds judgement (the 1999 House of Lords judgment in Reynolds vs Times Newspapers Ltd), Lord Nicholls suggested 10 criteria that could be used to measure whether a publication had been responsible. Although these criteria were meant to be illustrative they have come to be seen as a list of requirements to be satisfied. While a large newspaper group may be able to satisfy these criteria (albeit at huge expense), for bloggers, scientists or NGOs this is simply not practical. A better defence for large media organisations can be created by updating the bill to reflect the latest case law, in particular the summary by Lord Justice Brown in Flood vs Times. This should be included in the Bill either by deleting the entirety of the existing Clause 4 to keep the existing common law position which is stronger than the position in the Bill; or, more suitably (to create legal certainty) by amending the existing Clause 4. This amendment would at least give large media groups a reliable “responsible journalism” defence.
However, a “responsible journalism” defence will not protect the bloggers, scientists and NGOs who have driven the Libel Reform Campaign. Some MPs have responded to calls for a public interest defence, rather than just a responsible journalism defence. In the bill Committee, Rob Flello MP (the Labour party’s lead on this issue) proposed a strong public interest defence based around proposals from the Libel Reform Campaign for the government to use. A variant of this defence was adopted by Liberal Demoract Simon Hughes MP at report stage before the Bill went to the Lords. Such a public interest defence has found defenders inside the Conservative party including Rt Hon David Davis MP and Sir Peter Bottomley MP.
This public interest defence, to be inserted in the Bill as a new clause, would protect genuine public interest statements made in good faith. The clause would require that statements that meet a public interest threshold, which cannot be shown to be substantially true (such as claims around scientific research), are promptly clarified or corrected with adequate prominence. Those publications that do not drag their heels in publishing a prominent correction or clarification would be protected from having to defend a libel action. This gives bloggers, NGOs and scientists latitude to publish in a responsible manner on matters of a public interest.
The Libel Reform Campaign is looking to the second reading in the House of Lords for the government to adopt such a public interest defence.
Action on corporations
As pointed out by Index on Censorship, if defamation is about protecting the psychological integrity of individuals, why should corporations be able to sue?
The Libel Reform Campaign is lobbying parliamentarians to adopt a new clause on corporations, preventing them from using the law of defamation to sue individuals and requiring them instead use alternative laws such as malicious falsehood (which has a higher threshold of harm), the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 (BPRs), or a freestanding remedy of obtaining a declaration of falsity. The Labour party pursued this point during the Bill Committee, the Liberal Democrats made a manifesto commitment to do this at the last election, and many Conservative parliamentarians have called publicly for a bar on corporations suing individuals (or a higher threshold to initiate such an action). We expect the House of Lords to consider this during the second reading.
Striking out trivial cases
In recent years, the courts have allowed trivial or vexatious cases to proceed at huge expense to both the claimant the defendant, even where there has been little chance of the claimant winning their case. The Ministry of Justice believes that “existing procedures will suffice” under rule 3.4 of the civil procedure rules to strike out such cases at an early stage. But this has clearly not been borne out in legal practice. If the government’s intention is to allow for early strike out, then there must be an amendment telling judges to strike out claims that fail to surmount the “serious” (harm and extent of publication) hurdle.
Strengthening protections against “libel tourism”
In 2010, President Obama signed into law the US SPEECH Act protecting Americans from libel judgements made in the high court here. John Whittingdale MP, the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee described this as a “national humiliation”. The current Bill does help prevent “libel tourism”, the phenomenon where international parties sue in the High Court in London rather than in a more appropriate domestic court.
But while the government’s Clause 9 is an improvement on the current position in law, we believe Subsection 13 (2) of Lord Lester’s Private Members’ Bill would be better, and should be added as an amendment to Clause 9 as it is clearer than the current “libel tourism” clause.
Lord Lester’s clause states:
No harmful event is to be regarded as having occurred in relation to the claimant unless the publication in the jurisdiction can reasonably be regarded as having caused substantial harm to the claimant’s reputation having regard to the extent of publication elsewhere
This is a weak point of the bill. In recent years, internet intermediaries have received some protection from e-commerce regulations. Under these regulations, hosts do not have to remove material unless they are informed that it is “unlawful”. However, English law has not kept pace with these regulations. Section 1 of the 1996 Defamation Act (written in the internet’s infancy) involves a lower threshold for liability of intermediaries merely when a statement is “defamatory”. Unfortunately, Clause 5 of the current bill uses this out-dated threshold. The Libel Reform Campaign is also urging the government to publish the wider regulations on internet liability immediately. The government is currently intending to amend into the bill through a statutory instrument, giving Parliament a far more limited role in scrutinising these important regulations.
When the Bill is debated in the House of Lords, the Libel Reform Campaign hopes the government will signal its intention to bring forward amendments to the bill in light of the comments and tabled amendments from parliamentarians from all the main political parties. All three parties promised reform. Now is the time to deliver.
Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship