Jack Straw promises reform of libel laws

The Government is drawing up proposals for wholesale reform of the libel laws, justice secretary Jack Straw has confirmed.

His comments echo those of Lord chief justice Judge speaking last week at the Society of Editors conference.

Straw told the Sunday Times that radical change was needed: “It is very important that citizens are able to take action for defamation if they are seriously defamed. But no-win, no-fee arrangements have got out of hand. The system has become unbalanced.”

He added: “The very high levels of remuneration for defamation lawyers in Britain seem to be incentivising libel tourism.”

Straw said media outlets and individuals had to be given clearer rights to freedom of expression, as was the situation in other countries such as the US.

“A free press can’t operate or be effective unless it can offer readers comment as well as news,” he insisted. “What concerns me is that the current arrangements are being used by big corporations to restrict fair comment, not always by journalists but also by academics.”

HIs comments follow a threat by the publishers of US papers including the Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times top stop the sales of their titles in the UK due to the libel risks.

In a memo to the Commons media select committee they said: “Leading US newspapers are actively considering abandoning the supply of the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London – mainly to Americans who want full details of their local news and sport.

“They do not make profits out of these minimal and casual sales and they can no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action which they would never face under US law.

“Does the UK really want to be seen as the only country in Europe – indeed in the world – where important US papers cannot be obtained in print form?”

The Ministry of Justice in the midst of a consultation about updating the UK libel laws for the internet age.

The consultation, which closes on 16 December, could change the rules which state that every time an article is downloaded it counts as a new publication.

The Ministry of Justice is also under pressure to look at more widespread reform of Britain’s libel reforms and is currently reviewing the Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) rules.

Press Gazette’s Media Law Conference last year heard that the cost to a publisher of defending a major libel action at trial was now around £2.4m.

This comprises: the libel claimant’s legal costs of £750,000, a 100 per cent success fee under CFA for the claimant’s lawyers of another £750,000, the publisher’s own costs of £500,000 and a further £420,000 to pay the insurance premium which the claimant would have taken to protect themselves against losing.

In an interview with the Sunday Times this weekend, Straw said he was impressed with a report by Index and Censorship and English PEN which proposes capping libel damages at £10,000 and making an apology the chief remedy. The report also proposes banning libel cases from being heard in London unless at least 10 per cent of the publication’s circulation is in the UK.

Straw’s commments come as a review by law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain reveals that 259 libel writs were issued in the High Court in 2008 – the highest level since 2004.

Press Gazette has been highlight the threat’s posed to freedom of speech by the UK’s current libel laws since last year with its Fair Play on CFA campaign.

Lord chief justice judge told last week’s Society of Editor’s conference that under CFA rules: “The pressures to settle when you don’t think it right to settle to avoid the huge costs themselves have a gagging effect in relation to the media. There will ultimately have to be legislation about this…And it will have to achieve a structure which enables citizens without any access to funds with a genuine claim for redress to bring it to court.”

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