Clegg vows to change 'laughing stock' libel law

Nick Clegg will set out ambitious plans to reform libel laws today, branding the current system a “laughing stock”.

The Deputy Prime Minister will promise a bill this spring to crack down on so-called “libel tourism” and protect those who speak out in the public interest.

Clegg is expected to announce that the bill will also put in place a framework for handling defamation on the internet as he delivers a wide-ranging speech on civil liberties in central London.

He will savage Labour for introducing ID cards, expanding the DNA database and trying to introduce 90-day detention without charge.

He is also expected to hint at the coalition’s ideas for replacing control orders for suspected terrorists – the subject of fraught negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and Tories.

Clegg will say that English libel laws are having a “chilling effect on scientific debate and investigative journalism”.

“The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way,” the Lib Dem leader will say.

“It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.

“Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous.

“It is a farce – and an international embarrassment – that the American government has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws.

“This government wants to restore our international reputation for free speech. We will be publishing a draft defamation bill in the spring.

“We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest and to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment and justification.

“We believe claimants should not be able to threaten claims on what are essentially trivial grounds. We are going to tackle libel tourism.

“And we’re going to look at how the law can be updated to better reflect the realities of the internet.”

Clegg will also promise to “address the high costs of defamation proceedings”, with proposals to restrict controversial “no-win no-fee” arrangements.

“Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint,” he will insist.

Turning his fire on the previous government, the Deputy Prime Minister will say: “My party spent years campaigning against the erosion of our civil liberties under Labour.

“And now, in government, we are going to turn a page on that chapter; resurrecting the liberties that have been lost; embarking on a mission to restore our great British freedoms.”

Free speech and libel reform campaigners welcomed Clegg’s plans for reform.

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “The deputy prime minister has not only acknowledged the chilling effect of our defamation laws, but taken our demands for reform fully on board.

“We’re delighted that that in tone and detail the draft bill will go a long way to tackling the chill on free speech emanating from English courts.”

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, said: “If the government follows through on Mr Clegg’s encouraging promises, the law will achieve a much more sensible balance between free expression and reputation.

“MPs must now ensure that the draft bill lives up to these commitments, and that the measures are not watered down to please the rich libel tourists who currently abuse our system.”

Tracey Brown, from Sense About Science, added: “The current libel laws are squashing free debate and expression about science, medicine, local government, corruption, biography, and consumer safety.

“It is squashing many more people now that we have internet publishing and individual blogs taking on these subjects.

“We think the government understands that now, but we know that there are many who would like to keep this system for silencing or bankrupting critics, so the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to change is very important.”

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