A victory for Singh but a setback for Jack Straw
John Kampfner: Jack Straw's plans for libel reform faces parliamentary hitch
06 Apr 10

This article originally appeared in Media Guardian

The most disparaged parliament in living memory may end its life this week in characteristic style. A small band of refusenik MPs are planning to stay behind to prevent one last piece of business from being passed.

These are plans, presented by Jack Straw, the justice secretary and a latter-day convert to libel reform, to limit the success fees won by avaricious legal firms in cases conducted under conditional fee agreements (CFAs), better known as “no win, no fee”. In one fell swoop, and somewhat hastily, Straw has sought to cut back the costs that law firms can charge the other side after successful cases – from 100% to 10%.

Reform of CFAs has been an important part of our broader campaign with English PEN and Sense about Science to change England’s hideous libel laws, which are skewed towards the rich and powerful and have helped to chill free expression in the UK and around the world. The issue is complex. The original idea behind “no win, no fee” was admirable, allowing ordinary and often impecunious people either to defend themselves or to sue for damage to their reputations. However the system is open to abuse, with law firms cherry-picking risk-free cases and wealthy individuals using CFAs to bully people into submission.

Last week, it was assumed that Straw’s plans would go through easily. But this did not take into account the small number of MPs nursing resentments over the way the media have treated them during the expenses scandal. Several of them, led by Tom Watson, a close ally of Gordon Brown, have won defamation cases against newspapers. They belong to the old school that sees the fourth estate as a feral beast needing to be tamed, rather than understanding the extent to which robust investigative journalism and fair comment have been silenced in recent years. They also ignore the significant impact of costs on NGOs investigating corruption, as well as on scientists, academics, publishers and authors.

If these malcontent MPs succeed, they will have made a small dent in the bigger campaign. The battle for free expression in the UK has become attritional. The forces of resistance have begun to organise, and they are lobbying hard in parliament, particularly targeting the Tories. While Labour have belatedly joined the Lib Dems in committing themselves to the principle of libel reform, the Tories remain unclear in their intentions, with several key figures enjoying close relations with the law firms at the heart of the problem.

Yet for every setback there is a cause for celebration. On Thursday, the scientist Simon Singh secured an important victory when the court of appeal ruled that his negative remarks about chiropractors were “honest opinion” rather than fact. In other words, he does not have to provide hard evidence to support his claims against the British Chiropractic Association. The specifics of the judgment are welcome. Arguably even more important is the language used.

In their ruling, the judges not only dismiss the arguments used by Justice Eady in his initial ruling last May. They point to broader ramifications. For nearly two years since publication of Singh’s Guardian article, they say: “it seems unlikely that anyone would dare repeat the opinions expressed by Dr Singh for fear of a writ. Accordingly this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices.” That is a devastating indictment.

The judges go further, saying of Singh’s piece: “The opinion may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth.”

This ruling just may be part of a pattern. Already one or two cases that might have been brought by foreign litigants – using the UK, as ever, for what has come to be known as “libel tourism” – have been rejected on grounds of jurisdiction.

Judges are sensing the public mood and moving with it. Yet it could all unravel quite quickly with an incoming government asking for yet another review, giving time for the law firms’ lobbyists to cash in and wreck reform. The litigant companies will move back on to the offensive, sniffing their chance to regain lost ground, and lost profits. The battle for libel reform has barely begun.

John Kampfner is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship