European court rejects time limit for online libel claim

The Times has failed in its bid to challenge an obscure 160-year-old legal precedent that allows people to sue newspapers for online libel without any time limit.

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday rejected the paper’s argument that the so-called “Duke of Brunswick” rule breached its Article 10 right to freedom of expression.

The rule, named after an 1849 judgment in which a German duke successfully sued over allegations published in a newspaper 19 years earlier, effectively means that every time an archive is accessed gives rise to a fresh case for libel action.

The Times, which has a substantial online archive dating back to 1785, went to Strasbourg to challenge a 2001 High Court libel ruling in favour of a Russian businessman.

The claimant, referred to in court as GL, had sued The Times for libel over two articles printed in the newspaper in September and October 1999.

He sued again a year later because, while the action was underway, the stories remained accessible on the Times Online website.

Times Newspapers argued that a “single publication rule” should apply to online publications.

In its judgment yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights accepted that online newspaper archives were “an important source for education and historical research”.

But it added: “The duty of the press to act in accordance with the principles of responsible journalism by ensuring the accuracy of historical, rather than perishable, information published is likely to be more stringent in the absence of any urgency in publishing the material.”

The court said it had ruled on the facts of this case alone and would not “consider in detail the broader chilling effect allegedly created by the application of the internet publication rule”.

But it said: “While an aggrieved applicant must be afford a real opportunity to vindicate his right to reputation, libel proceedings brought against a newspaper after a significant lapse of time may well, in the absence of exceptional circumstances, give rise to a disproportionate interference with press freedom under Article 10.”

News International legal manager Alastair Brett spoke of his concerns about the Duke of Brunswick rule at the Press Gazette media law conference in London last month.

“It may be years after the hard copy first came out, a new right of action accrues. There is effectively no limitation period on newspaper archives,” Brett said.

“This is really a case that’s been going on and on and on. When will the government do something?” he asked.

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