Court ruling makes clear libel juries are likely to be a thing of the past

The first case under the new Defamation Act has put one important issue beyond doubt: libel juries are likely to be a thing of the past.

The act abolished the automatic right to a jury and instead, gave courts the discretion to allow one.

In the case earlier this year, Tim Yeo MP (pictured, Reuters) v Times Newspapers, the newspaper requested a jury. They said judges were seen as powerful figures in public life, and a jury trial would negate any risk of perceived bias.

But Mr Justice Warby rejected The Sunday Times’ arguments. He said a jury should only be allowed in cases involving … "a simple libel action concerning a single factual allegation in which meaning is not in dispute and the sole issue is truth". Which, in reality, is rarely, if ever.

He also set out reasons why judges were preferable:

1.        Judges give reasoned judgments, whereas a jury's verdict can leave room for doubt. The public need to see a written judgments in cases where there is greater public interest in the subject matter.

2.       Jury trials take longer and costs more.

3.       Judges can rule on the meaning of a publication at an early stage, which means cases will be cheaper and more efficient.

So the default position for libel trial is now be a trial by a judge, apart from the most basic cases.

Cleland Thom is author of Internet law guide for journalists

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