Libel Reform Bill to achieve 'fair balance' in libel

Justice Secretary Jack Straw today confirmed that a Libel Reform Bill is proposed in the next Parliament – after the general election – which will tackle libel tourism and provide greater protection to investigative journalism.

The reforms announced today follow the work of the Libel Working Group established by the Ministry of Justice in January and a public consultation on libel and the internet.

Separate reforms are currently going through Parliament which should see success fees for media lawyers taking cases on a no win, no fee basis cut by 90 per cent.

Under the proposals announced today:

  • The current rule stating that every time an online version of a story is viewed it is counted as a new publication will be changed with the introduction of a single publication rule. This will mean that claimants will only be able sue if they bring their action within one year of the date of the original publication. But the courts will have power to extend this period “where necessary”.
  • Consideration will be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. This is particularly aimed at protecting investigative journalism..
  • Libel tourism will be tackled by tightening up the rules governing which cases from publications outside the EU can be heard in UK courts.

Justice secretary Jack Straw said: “Our current libel laws need to achieve a fair balance between allowing people to protect their reputations from defamatory allegations, and ensuring that freedom of expression and the public’s right to know on matters of public interest are not unnecessarily impeded. At the moment, we believe that the balance is tilted too much in favour of the former.

“The changes announced today, together with other steps already taken by the Government, will redress this imbalance. Replacing the multiple publication rule will ensure that people cannot take court action every time the same article is downloaded, preventing costly and unnecessary legal actions and the uncertainty for publishers of open-ended liability.

“The Government is considering whether a statutory public interest defence would help journalists and other groups who investigate matters of public importance, who are sometimes prevented from making their findings known because of the threat of legal action.”

Jo Glanville, the CEO of Index on Censorship, said: “Labour have shown a commitment to freedom of expression, albeit a late one, by clearly stating they will reform our libel laws. We’re pleased Jack Straw has taken our recommendations seriously, and has come up with some comprehensive reforms, though we would like to see the exemption of corporations from libel law.”

The changes could potentially be introduced in a proposed Libel Reform Bill in the next Parliament, but this could be dependent on whether or not it is a priority of a new government.

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