Jack Straw to outline proposed changes to libel law today

Justice Secretary Jack Straw will later today outline a series of sweeping changes aimed at reforming UK libel laws.

Straw said proposals from a working group of senior journalists and figures from the legal profession looking into changes to the laws on libel would be published today as he sought to reflect concerns that “libel laws actually constrain freedom of expression”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Straw said the essence of the proposed changes was to end abuse of the libel system.

He said: “There have been horrific examples where scientists are being sued for alleged defamation…ending libel tourism is very important, dealing with this problem of multiple publication, extending the defence of fair comment so there is a statutory defence for responsible journalism.”

He added that limiting costs in Conditional Fee Agreement cases was a major priority saying: “This has been seriously undermining the finances of regional newspapers quite gratuitously.”

A proposal is currently passing through Parliament that will cut the success fees lawyers can charge in CFA cases – also known as “no win, no fee” cases – by 90 per cent if, as expected, it becomes law next month.

Straw established the working group on libel reform, which includes Sunday Times editor John Witherow alongside executives from law firms Carter-Ruck and Schillings, in January to examine the possibility that current libel laws are having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

That group, chaired by Rowena Collins-Rice, the chief legal officer at the Ministry of Justice, was charged by Straw with “considering whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions”.

The review examined a number of issues raise by a report published jointly between English PEN and Index on Censorship which outlined the need for reform.

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