The government’s announcement today brings forward the first attempt at wholesale libel law reform in over a century
The Libel Reform Campaign has welcomed the announcement this afternoon by Justice Minister Lord McNally that the new coalition government will prioritise and bring forward a Libel Reform Bill by the 2011/2012 parliamentary sessions, after a consultation this summer.
Lord McNally emphasised that this was not a “vague promise” but a “firm commitment to act on this matter”. The Justice Minister also promised that the reform will ensure a “fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation”.
After a national campaign that mobilised 52,000 supporters, English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science persuaded all three political parties to adopt libel reform in their general election manifestos.
Lord McNally said: “We recognise the concerns raised in recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression – particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism.”
“We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved so people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation but so that freedom of speech is not unjustifiably impeded.”
The lack of a robust public interest defence for writers, scientists and human rights activists has led to English libel law being condemned by the UN human rights committee and Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee. In recent years, there have been increasing instances of ‘libel tourism’ where wealthy foreign claimants use the High Court in London to silence their critics. Another area of concern is the multiple publication rule, which counts every internet visit in a new jurisdiction as a new instance of defamation. This judicial ruling predates the light bulb yet is still used in judgements in internet defamation cases. Currently, 90 per cent of libel cases in England and Wales are won by claimants, taking a case here costs 140 times the European average, and in a survey of GPs, half said they do not discuss drug safety because of fear of a libel action.
John Kampfner, the CEO of Index on Censorship said:
Today the government listened to the 52,000 people who backed the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science campaign to redesign our libel laws and have committed, for the first time in a century, to wholesale reform. We are delighted, but obviously we’ll need to see how bold the government will be – they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast iron protections to free speech.
Jonathan Heawood, the Director of English PEN said:
Until the Libel Reform Bill is actually passed, the right to free speech in this country will be conditional on writers or scientists having deep pockets or a willingness to fight for years through the Courts. It should no longer be a matter for judges but Parliamentarians should decide on how we balance free expression and reputation.
Tracey Brown, the Managing Director of Sense About Science said:
Lord Lester’s Bill is the first time in over a century that there has been a case for fundamental reform before Parliament. We are delighted that the government has responded. The Libel Reform Campaign, supported by over 50,000 people and many leading commentators, will continue doing all we can to ensure that the minister’s response to the debate today is translated into meaningful change in the lives of bloggers, science writers, NGOs and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy under the current laws.
The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. For more information please visit: http://www.libelreform.org