Dr David Wolfe QC was appointed chair of a Recognition Panel this week which will eventually have the power to judge whether future press regulators comply with the Royal Charter and so can protect their members from punitive costs in libel and privacy cases under the Crime and Courts Act 2013.
Lester said he was hopeful that current discussions about libel costs may in any case dramatically reduce the expense of dealing with libel and privacy claims.
He said: “We don’t yet have a complete set of rules on costs but it may turn out that this tort can be treated like any other tort.”
This could mean that libel and privacy claims are taken out of the High Court, to local courts, and that more measures are included to encourage “alternative dispute resolution” – he said.
Talking about the Royal Charter-backed press regulation system backed by the Government, Lester said: “When I talk to people in the rest of the world about this they say ‘I thought the Court of the Star Chamber had been abolished, what are you up to?’
“What we are faced with is a voluntary scheme of regulation [IPSO] that is not perfect but has a perfect chairman in Sir Alan Moses.
“This scheme needs to be given time to work before we go back to any statutory stuff. That’s what I passionately believe should happen.
“Friends of mine, especially intellectual friends of mine, have sided with free speech but they so hate Rupert Murdoch that they’ve moved into the other camp.”
Most major newspaper and magazine publishers have signed up to IPSO. Notable exceptions include The Guardian, The Independent and the FT.
Lester said: “I think The Guardian will have its own scheme.” But when asked about this later in the conference, Guardian director of editorial legal services Gill Phillips said paper was still “sitting on the fence” when it came to deciding whether or not to sign up to IPSO.
In her presentation Philips talked about the various “sticks” included in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 to encourage publishers to sign up to a Royal Charter-based press regulator.
The act extends exemplary damages to privacy cases (as well as defamation) for the first time and says that members of a state-approved press regulator (under the Royal Charter) would be protected from the threat of such damages.
Phillips said such damages are so rare in any case (she said they have been awarded perhaps three times in 30 years) that this is not a factor for publishers.
She said that costs provision of the Crime and Courts Act is more worrying for publishers. This states that publishers who are not members of a regulator which has official recognition under the Royal Charter could have to pay costs for both sides even if they win a libel or privacy case
It states that costs are payable by publishers if the claim could been resolved by "using an arbitration scheme of the approved regulator”.
Phillips noted: "This is only triggered once the Recognition Panel recognises the first approved regulator."
While IPSO has said it won't seek recognition, she noted that rival regulator "Impress may well apply and become the trigger for all this to come into force."
Impress founder Jonathan Heawood told Press Gazette: “We want to set up a regulator to regulate news publishers. “We are still open about the charter. That’s going to be a decision to make in discussion with our foudnign members.
“We don’t have our finger on any kind of trigger.”
Lord Lester described the Defamation Act, which he was closely involved in drafting, as “the first major reform of libel in a century”.
Here is he talking about the implications of the act for journalists: