Straw on libel reform
Padraig Reidy: The Justice Secretary must look beyond cost and see the other injustices lurking in our defamation system
03 Dec 09

This week’s New Statesman features an interview with Justice Secretary Jack Straw. NS editor Jason Cowley writes:

Straw told me he is determined to introduce immediate and substantive reform. He is drawing up proposals to “introduce a radically reduced cap on the level of excessive success fees in defamation cases”. He would not confirm what the exact cap will be, though reformers hope it may be as low as, say, 10 per cent. At present, success fees can be as high as 100 per cent of costs. “Our libel laws are having a chilling effect. By definition, it’s not hitting the most profitable international media groups, News International or Associated Newspapers, though it’s not good news for them. It is hitting the press vital to our democracy but whose finances are much more difficult, and that includes magazines, one or two of the nationals, and regional and local newspapers. That’s why I will be changing the law on defamation costs . . . and I’m anxious to get ahead on this.”

It’s encouraging that Straw is talking seriously about this, but, as with his counterpart Dominic Grieve, his focus seems to be on the expense of the libel courts. While there is no doubt expense is a massive issue, it is worth restating: people sue here not only because they can win lots of money, but also because they have a very, very good chance of winning, as so many factors are weighted in the plaintiff’s favour.

Lowering the expense of libel cases may allow for greater access to the courts for ordinary people, and give people a greater chance of mounting a defence (and indeed a complaint), but it won’t necessarily make the courts themselves more just.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.