Lib Dem peer proposes libel reform bill

Human rights barrister Lord Lester has drawn up a defamation reform bill which he says has cross-party support and would be available to whoever wins next year’s general election.

According to the Sunday Times, the Lib Dem peer’s “moderate” bill would tackle the issues of libel tourism and the huge costs to publishers of cases brought under no win, no fee rules.

Last week, justice secretary Jack Straw told the Sunday Times that the government was drawing up widespread reform of the libel laws. He said: “No-win, no-fee arrangements have got out of hand. The system has become unbalanced.”

No win, no fee rules can be changed without new legislation but by changing court rules.

The Ministry of Justice in the midst of a consultation about updating 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.

According to the Sunday Times, Lord Lester’s bill would:

  • Reform the no-win no-fee which makes the costs so high for publishers that they often settle just to minimise their risks.
  • End the rule whereby every time a web story is downloaded it counts as a new publication, and so the time limit starts again on a possible libel action.
  • Prevent foreigners from suing in the British courts unless they can demonstrate that they have suffered real harm in Britain.
  • Give publications a stronger public interest defence in libel cases.
  • End the cash damages for claimants, saying that in most cases an apology from the publication should suffice.

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.

Lord chief justice judge told the Society of Editor’s conference earlier this month that under no win, no fee 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.”

Press Gazette has been highlighting the dangers posed to publishers by no win, no fee rules – also known as conditional fee arrangements – with its Fair Play on CFA campaign.

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