Justice Secretary Jack Straw gave evidence to the select committee on libel and privacy this morning. And there are encouraging signs of a will for reform — though not in all the areas that matter. He is clearly convinced that costs — particularly conditional fee agreements — need tackling and told the committee, “I do believe there is a necessity actively to look at amending the law in advance of [Lord Justice] Jackson’s review.” Lord Justice Jackson, who is conducting a review of civil litigation costs, had just told the select committee minutes beforehand that he wanted there to be an “holistic” approach to reform, rather than anything “piecemeal”. So this is likely to be exactly what he fears. And one worries that the secretary of state’s proposals may in fact undercut Lord Justice Jackson’s comprehensive review — which may come up with radical reform.
Jack Straw also said that he would be looking at defamation online and ISPs’ liability — a consultation will be launched before the summer recess. However, when asked about libel tourism, the secretary of state said that he had not been convinced that there was a significant problem. The committee members were clearly surprised. They pointed out that the United States was legislating to protect its citizens from our libel laws and that cases were being heard in our courts where the plaintiffs had the flimsiest connections. However, Jack Straw repeated that he hadn’t yet been presented with the evidence to convince him. So it’s good news and bad news. The message has finally got through that costs are a significant chilling effect on free speech — and that’s something to celebrate. But it’s puzzling that libel tourism has made such little impact on Straw when it has been the cause of international condemnation — not only from politicians in the US but from the UN Human Rights Committee. Let’s hope that the select committee has got the evidence to convince him.