Follow Canada on libel reform, urges former Law Lord

A former Law Lord has called for England and Wales to follow the Canadian Supreme Court in developing of a new ‘responsible communication’defence against defamation in libel cases.

Cross-bench peer Lord Steyn said the new Canadian defence allowed journalists to avoid liability if it could be shown that information they communicated – whether true or false – was of public interest.

Under the new Canadian Supreme Court defence rules, Lord Steyn said as he delivered the Third Annual Boydell Lecture in London last week, journalists also had to prove their diligence in trying to verify information.

Lord Steyn said libel law was tilted against the media as he gave examples of how the current use of so-called ‘Reynolds defence’needed a re-examination.

“Unfortunately as matters stand, the Reynolds privilege will continue to complicate the task of journalists and editors who wish to explore matters of public interest and it will continue to erode freedom of expression,’he said.

Last week, a draft Defamation Bill drawn up by Lord Lester of Herne Hill proposed toughening up libel defences by introducing a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest as one of several new measures.

The Canadian Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, Lord Steyn said, had produced “luminous judgments” in two recent cases – Grant vs Torstar and Quan vs Cusson – that recognised the importance of a robust media in protecting freedom of expression.

Lord Steyn said there was now momentum among the senior judiciary for improvement in libel law, calling Simon Singh’s success in the Court of Appeal “an enormous advance”, but he believed legislation would be necessary to make similar changes to libel defence in England and Wales.

‘If this course is adopted it would greatly enhance the cause of freedom of expression in this country,’he added.

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