Libel reform debate media round-up [updated x 3]

1 June 2010 by

We posted on Friday that the libel reform debate is hotting up now that the Coalition Government has pledged to reform the law of libel. We are following the debate because of the wide-ranging implications any significant reform will have for the law of freedom of expression, as a number of articles published over the weekend demonstrate.

Lord Lester, who has recently produced a draft libel reform bill, writes in the Times:

The chilling effect of our current libel law needs urgently to be tackled by the government and parliament. I hope that my bill will be the catalyst for much-needed legislative reform.

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, an organisation which aims to promote freedom of expression, writes in the Guardian:

Lord Lester’s private member’s bill represents the first concerted attempt to codify the balance between free expression and the right to reputation. It seeks to introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest; clarify the defences of justification and fair comment; require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss; encourage quick and cost-effective settlement of disputes through arbitration without recourse to costly litigation. And, in a nod to the 21st century, it addresses the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of internet service providers and hosts

Matthew Sinclair, a research director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, responds in the Guardian to Zoe Margolis’ defence of conditional fee agreements (that is, no win no fee):

The reality, though, is that those arrangements are a critical part of a system that is seriously undermining free speech and are simply unjust, affecting many cases that are far more contentious than hers. Despite the undoubted and dreadful harm she has suffered, the “girl with a one track mind” needs to look at the bigger picture.

Conditional fee agreements allow libel lawyers to offer what is essentially a no-win, no-fee deal to their clients. As Margolis notes, hefty success fees when they win are designed to compensate firms for the money they lose when a case doesn’t go their way.

Update 02/06/10 – Paul Tweed, a media lawyer and a senior partner at Johnsons Solicitors‘ senior partner refutes Lord Lester’s assertion that libel law is “notoriously costly, complicated and stifling of free speech”:

Watching the intense media frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic over so-called ‘libel tourism’ and reform of our libel laws, it is easy to forget the interests of the ordinary man in the street. It is not so much the international litigant who is likely to be affected by the draconian reforms being advocated in the press, but rather the rights of the individual UK citizen.

The Inforrm Blog posts Lord Lester and the Libel Reform Campaign: we need mature debate:

We suggest that the time has come for some mature debate – without name calling. The Libel Reform Campaign began the debate by seeking to identify some problems and proposing some solutions. A number of issues have arisen in relation to both “problems” and “solutions”. It seems to us that it would be helpful to clarify, point by point, where the debate presently stands.

Update 03/06/10 – Lord Pannick quoted by the Law Society Gazette: “‘Lord Lester’s bill will remedy many of the legal deficiencies that have made London the libel capital of the world and severely damaged freedom of expression.”

Updated 04/06/10 – William Bennett, a barrister specialising in libel and defamation law, says on Inforrm: “Defamation law ought to be subject to scrutiny and it is by no means perfect; however, the criticisms made of it do not appear to be based on a careful evaluation. For instance, the quote above has no basis. It is nigh on impossible to obtain an interim injunction preventing a publisher from publishing defamatory material if the publisher asserts (not proves) that it has a defence. There are no super injunctions (injunctions which forbid the publication of the fact of an injunction) in defamation because there are no injunctions in defamation to attach them to.”

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