The Libel Reform Campaign is concerned that the government will force through an amendment tabled by libel barrister Edward Garner QC allowing corporations to sue individuals for libel
The Defamation Bill returns to the House of Commons for consideration of the House of Lords amendments today. The first business of the day will be to remove Lord Puttnam’s amendment that attempted to bring in press regulation by the ‘back door’ into the Defamation Bill. Puttnam’s amendment nearly caused the Defamation Bill to be lost, as No 10 hinted it would make the Bill unworkable.
At the same time as the Lords voted through the Puttnam amendment, they also backed a sensible amendment that corporations need to show direct financial harm before they can bring a libel action. The Libel Reform Campaign argued for this amendment which was tabled by the Labour party. As Index has argued before our libel laws have historically been about protecting reputation due to its part in preserving psychological integrity. Corporations don’t have feelings, so why should they be able to sue for libel?
Edward Garnier QC MP, a practising libel lawyer, has tabled an amendment to remove House of Lords amendment 2 from the Defamation Bill. If passed, it will allow corporations to sue for libel regardless of whether or not they have suffered financial harm. It would be a retrograde step and damage the bill. Labour has said they will oppose Garnier’s motion, but with support from MPs from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties his motion is likely be carried.
Another important amendment has been tabled by Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley, backed by Labour MP Paul Farrelly (who is also Chair of the All-Party Group on Libel Reform) to strengthen the public interest defence. The new public interest defence the government tabled in the House of Lords will be a significant improvement on the current complex and unpredictable law. However, its test of ‘reasonable belief’ is likely to lead to prolonged and costly arguments over a defendant’s state of mind (their belief) and requests from claimants for disclosure so they can prove malice and therefore defeat the test. Sir Peter Bottomley’s amendment would change “the defendant reasonably believed” to “the defendant reasonably decided”, this would significantly clarify the defence.
Today will be an important day for the Defamation Bill. The House of Commons could strengthen the Bill to give us a genuinely reforming Bill, or water it down in a direct challenge the Lords.
You can sign the Libel Reform Campaign’s petition here: libelreform.org