Liberty welcomes Government moves on libel reform

15 March 2011

Today Liberty welcomed the Government’s draft Defamation Bill which will overhaul libel law in the UK. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke’s proposed reforms will help thwart unreasonable libel threats and support free speech while still allowing people to protect their reputations.

Areas including responsible journalism and scientific debate will benefit from better protection under the plans, and so-called ‘libel tourism’ in the UK will also be addressed. 

Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, said:

“Article 10 of the Human Rights Act contains our first positive right to free speech but too often defamation law pushes the other way.  The Government’s welcome proposals could help stem frivolous or abusive threats of libel and prevent powerful interests coming to Britain to shut down criticism and debate.”

Liberty supports a number of the proposals contained in the Ministry of Justice’s draft Defamation Bill:

  • A new requirement that a statement must have caused substantial harm to the claimant’s reputation to be considered defamatory.  Currently, harm is presumed without the claimant having to prove any damage suffered.  This reform should help root out unmeritorious claims and help reverse the chilling effect of the current position;
  • Extending the scope of, and giving greater clarity to, the legal defences to defamation claims.  In particular, a new statutory defence of reasonable publication on matters of public interest and new defences of truth and honest opinion;
  • Introduction of a single publication rule, to prevent actions being brought in relation to material published years earlier.  The current rules have become particularly problematic in the context of online archives, because a statement is considered to be re-published every time a webpage containing it is accessed.  The proposed reform would mean that a defamation action against a publisher must be brought within the first year of original publication;
  • Limiting the jurisdiction of domestic courts so that libel cases are only heard where England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place to bring an action.  This should help deal with the international embarrassment of ‘libel tourism’, whereby powerful interests come to the UK to sue those who seek to criticise or contribute to important public debates.

 

A public consultation paper has also been launched alongside the draft Bill.

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128