Sorry to interrupt the raucous celebrations about the new Defamation Act that are still going on in newsrooms across the country. But I need to sound a note of caution. I mean, that’s what law guys do, isn’t it?
The new act will certainly make libel actions easier for the media to defend. Libel tourism will disappear, and the rules governing online publications will make life a lot easier for web journalists.
But … remember, the Defamation Act is not in force yet. The Government has only said it will take effect ‘later in the year’.
And many people have missed a section that is in force already.
This says that the new law will only apply to articles published after it takes effect.
This is because existing libel laws give claimants a 12-month deadline to start a libel action.
So if a reader starts an action on 5 April, 2014, about an article that had been published nine months earlier, the paper must use the old libel laws, as they were in effect when the article was published. And it will probably lose its case.
Realistically, then, the media will not be able to use the new legislation in full until late 2014.
And, if I may be even more of a misery … yes, the new re-publication rules give greater libel protection to websites. But editors will still be liable for republishing material that breaches other laws, including copyright and contempt of court.