Index launches Alternative Libel Project

England’s libel laws have turned the country into “liberty’s enemy”, Observer columnist and author of You Can’t Read This Book Nick Cohen said at last night’s launch of Index and English PEN’s final report of the Alternative Libel Project.

“We virtually invented freedom of expression, but any scoundrel can go to the High Court,” Cohen said.

He was among a host of libel reform campaigners speaking at yesterday’s event at London’s Inner Temple, reflecting on the strides made in the campaign and reaffirming the need for change in England’s defamation law.

The Alternative Libel Project, the result of a year-long inquiry looking into alternatives to resolving libel claims through the High Court, has recommended the use of quicker and cheaper methods to tackle the chilling costs of bringing a claim forward. The report advocates capping the cost of a libel claim at the average UK house price and allowing judges to protect ordinary people from having to pay the other side’s costs if they lose.

Cohen gave an impassioned defence of press freedom, noting that the proliferation of online publishing meant libel reform was no longer only an issue facing reporters. “Everyone is a journalist,” he said.

He praised the campaign’s efforts but urged supporters to look at the “cold climate into which this legislation is emerging”, comparing asking to do the press a favour to asking for a pay rise for MPs after the expenses scandal.

Science writer Simon Singh argued that issues of libel reform were not “old problems”, revealing that, in addition to battling a libel claim brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, in 2010 he also received another threat over remarks he had made about climate change. The fear of libel, Singh said, was “widespread”.

Opening the event, Justice Minister Lord McNally echoed his statement made at yesterday’s Westminster Legal Policy Forum, saying that he would be “extremely disappointed” if a commitment to legislate of defamation was not part of the Queen’s Speech in May.

“This is not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning,” he said.

Alternative Libel Project Final March 2012

Index on Censorship and English PEN publish report on the Alternative Libel Project

Defamation cases should be mediated, and if they are not, they should be the subject of an early neutral evaluation by a High Court Judge, say Index on Censorship and English PEN in their report on defamation procedure.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Alternative Libel Project’s first report published on 6 October also recommends that:
• judges must use stricter case management;
• litigants should be able to make a stand alone application to determine the meaning of the allegations in question; and
• a costs regime must be introduced to redress the inequality of arms between the parties.

John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship said:

Defamation procedure needs to change so the balance between freedom of expression and reputation is not affected by the relative resources of litigants but by the strength of their claims. The recommendations we have made will not only result in many more cases being resolved very early on, they will ensure that those cases that do go to trial in the High Court are dealt with more efficiently.

The report is a preliminary one and Index on Censorship and English PEN are inviting views on their proposals before the 18 November. To comment, please e-mail Helen Anthony at helen[@]

The Alternative Libel Project Preliminary Report October 2011