The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the government’s draft defamation bill as a good step in the right direction – but Parliament needs to go further in key areas
The Libel Reform Campaign led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science have welcomed the government’s draft defamation bill as ‘a great starting point’ to ensure the first overhaul of our archaic libel laws, but calls upon Parliament to go further in key areas. Since its launch 18 months ago, 55,000 people have signed up to the campaign, with over half of all eligible MPs backing our Early Day Motion in the last session of Parliament. This is the first time any government has promised wholesale reform of our libel laws since 1843.
In particular, the campaign calls for:
• a stronger public interest defence
• an end to the ability of corporations to sue in libel
• more protection for web-hosts and internet service providers from liability for the words of others.
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN said:
“Our libel laws allow big corporations to silence their critics even though they do not ‘suffer’ damage in the same way that a libelled individual does. Whilst we’re delighted that the government has delivered a wholesale draft bill, for the first time in a generation, it’s essential that this opportunity delivers real reform that protects free speech for writers, publishers and the citizen critic.”
Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science said:
“The government has recognized the harmful effects of UK libel laws on science and medicine and proposes introducing a statutory public interest defence. This will need some development. As the consultation recognizes, there is still work to be done to ensure that we end up with a law that enables us all to focus on the question ‘is it true?’ rather than ‘will they sue?’”
John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship:
“I know that certain publications will not write about billionaire businessmen because the costs of a single libel action could ruin them. The government’s draft defamation bill is a big step forward towards ending the practice of libel tourism which has led our Courts to silence free speech around the world. But without action to reduce the cost of a libel trial, reform will protect the free speech of some, but costs will silence others.”
Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign:
“Those campaigning for libel reform will want to see cross-party recognition that the draft bill is a welcome step forward, but also that it does not yet reflect the extent of full libel reform that is required to properly protect free expression.”
Last week the Libel Reform Campaign published a blueprint for reform (available: www.libelreform.org). Today’s draft bill delivers just over half of the reforms set out by the campaign:
• Easier ‘strike out’ of trivial or inappropriate claims by raising the threshold of harm before a libel action can proceed
• A curtailment of ‘libel tourism’ with a stronger requirement to justify bringing a claim in this jurisdiction for claimants domiciled abroad
• A more effective and clearer defence of truth (justification)
• New clearer and wider statutory defence of honest opinion (fair comment)
• Extension of statutory qualified privilege to benefit NGOs and scientific conferences
• The introduction of a single publication rule with a one year cut off
The Libel Reform Campaign, while welcoming the conversion of the common law Reynolds defence into a clearer statutory public interest defence for all publishing, believes that this key component of the bill needs more work to give proper protection to “citizen critics”.
The government’s draft bill sets out consultation questions on some of the key areas needing reform. There needs to be a commitment to include the following in the bill:
• An end to the ability of claimants to censor criticism extra-judicially by threatening innocent hosts (including web-hosts and internet service providers) of allegedly defamatory material with libel actions
• Radical restrictions on the ability of corporations to sue in libel to protect their reputations, as applies to some public bodies
• Altering procedures in courts to reduce the time it takes to reach trial and the costs of libel actions
In November 2009, after a year-long inquiry, the ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ report was published by English PEN and Index on Censorship. In June 2009, Sense About Science launched the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign publicising libel threats against scientists such as Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst. In December 2009 the three charities came together to form the Libel Reform Campaign (www.libelreform.org) with the support of a cross-party parliamentary group convened by Dr Evan Harris. Now, the Libel Reform Campaign has published “Reforming Libel: What should a defamation bill contain?” (online here: http://goo.gl/pd8Wd) which outlines what the government’s draft defamation bill should achieve.
Some key facts about English libel law:
– our libel laws are stacked in favour of claimants, of 154 libel proceedings in 2008 identified in the Jackson Review (of 259 taken to the High Court), 0 were won by defendants.
– The average cost of a libel trial in England & Wales is up to 140 times the European equivalent. The most expensive libel action in 2008 cost £3,243,980 and the average cost for the 20 most expensive trials was £753,676.95. As the recession has deepened increasingly corporations are suing each other in a ‘race to the bottom’ to bolster their public profiles, the number of libel cases involving a business suing another business tripled last year.
The political significance:
All three main political parties committed to libel reform in their general election manifestos and it is in the coalition agreement.
This is the first attempt at wholesale reform of our defamation laws since the Libel Act 1843. Limited changes were made in the 1952 Defamation Act and 1996 Defamation Act.
The majority of eligible MPs in the last Parliament signed Early Day Motion 423 calling for libel reform. Jack Straw set up a working party to look into reform.