Denis MacShane MP today called for an end to corporate libel bullying of consumer groups and criticised the law firm Schillings for “showering writs” on consumer groups, websites and lawyers.
Speaking in support of the introduction of a new clause in the defamation bill that would bar corporations from suing for libel, the MP for Rotherham and former Europe Minister criticised the practice of “civil recovery”, where retailers hire firms to pursue shoplifters for compensation, describing it as “a £15-million-pound racket”.
Schillings has been sending intimidating letters to consumer forums, solicitors and consumer advice groups. The consumer website Legal Beagles today published a letter it received from the law firm.
Acting on behalf civil recovery firm Retail Loss Prevention (RLP), Schillings accused Legal Beagles of a ”vindictive campaign of harassment” and ”defamation” and demanded that the site supply the personal information of some of their members who posted comments on the site.
In May RLP lost a landmark case — the first “civil recovery” case to be contested. Two teenage girls were caught shoplifting, but although the goods were recovered and put on sale, the retailer claimed that its total losses amounted to almost £300. On cross-examination, this was demonstrated to be an exaggeration. The case represents a serious blow to RLP’s business, now that the amounts demanded in compensation have been challenged.
However, instead of retiring gracefully, RLP employed Schillings to threaten not only Legal Beagles but the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), along with one of its employees and solicitors representing the defendants in the case.
According to research by CAB, more than 750,000 people have been asked to make substantial payments to civil recovery firms since 1998 — and there are concerns that it is the vulnerable who are most at risk.
MacShane pushed for a new clause that would signal to Retail Loss Prevention that “their little game is over”. The Libel Reform Campaign, which includes Index on Censorship, is calling for measures to restrict corporations from using libel laws to silence criticism. Corporations would still be able to use malicious falsehood legislation and company directors could sue in their own name.
The clause was put to the vote in the last session of the public bill committee on the defamation bill today, but was defeated. But the House of Lords can still push this urgent reform through.
Jo Glanville is Editor of Index on Censorship