Libel reform included in Queen's Speech

The Libel Reform Campaign has claimed victory after defamation reform was included in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament today.

The group – a coalition of charities English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science – has been campaigning to reform libel law since November 2009 and claims to have received the backing of more than 100 organisations and 60,000 members of the public.

It said the new bill would ‘open the way to ending libel tourism’and protect free expression for journalists, writers, bloggers and scientists.

It also warned there was ‘still work to be done’and that it would continue campaigning to ensure the detail in the final bill ‘will truly deliver reform”.

Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes said: ‘Finally, the government is to stop libel tourism so wealthy foreign claimants can no longer use our High Court to silence their critics abroad.

‘The 60,000 people who signed the Libel Reform Campaign will be delighted that the Government has announced this reform, though we’ll be awaiting the detail.’

Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship said there was now a ‘a chance for libel legislation that’s fit for the 21st century”, adding: ‘The end of the single publication rule and greater protection for internet service providers will help to put an end to the chilling effect online.”

The managing director of Sense About Science, Tracey Brown, said: ‘We and thousands of others have campaigned to stop the libel laws’ bullying and chilling effects on discussions about health, scientific research, consumer safety, history and human rights.

‘We are really pleased to see the Government has moved closer to honouring its promise of a fairer law and protection of free speech in today’s Queen’s Speech. This opens the way to developing a law guided by public interest not powerful interests.”

Hardeep Singh, who was personally sued over an article he wrote about a religious leader, said: “It can’t be right that ordinary people risk their livelihoods when getting caught up in costly libel proceedings. The Government has already investigated ways to weed out unmeritorious claims, whereby claimants will have to show serious harm before a case progresses.

‘If passed by Parliament, these types of amendments will not only make our libel laws fairer, but go some way in restoring London’s reputation from being a ‘town called sue'”.

The government published a draft Defamation Bill in March 2011 and a public consultation on the draft Bill was opened by the Ministry of Justice.

The Government published its response to the Scrutiny Committee report and its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation in February 2012.

Phil Sherrell, a media lawyer at global law firm Bird & Bird said that while the media had ‘campaigned hard’to get the law reformed it ‘should perhaps be concerned by the law of unintended consequences”.

‘Trying to codify in one short Bill complex rules which have developed slowly over decades may simply lead to more litigation as parties seek to understand what the new rules mean,’he said.

His colleague Patrick Charnley said that the defences available to publishers were expected to be made clearer following reform.

He added: ‘At present, one of the most important defences for the press has all but fallen into disuse as a result of the difficulty of relying on it. Perhaps most significantly, the Bill is likely to include a requirement that claimants establish that they have suffered ‘serious harm’, a threshold which is intended to ensure that publishers are not burdened with claims brought by claimants in respect of publications which, although defamatory, are not actually likely to harm them. “

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