Lord Lester publishes reform plan for 'archaic' libel laws

A senior Liberal Democrat peer will today publish plans for reforming “archaic” libel laws in England and Wales.

A Defamation Bill drawn up by Lord Lester of Herne Hill will propose toughening up defences against being sued, and measures to encourage out-of-court settlements.

The private member’s bill comes after the coalition government pledged a review of the libel laws to protect free speech and prevent so-called “libel tourism”.

Lord Lester, a prominent QC, said the “vagueness and uncertainty” of the current system had a “chilling effect on freedom of expression”.

“The time is over-ripe for parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech,” he said.

“No government or parliament has conducted a thorough and comprehensive review. My bill provides the opportunity to do so and to modernise the law in step with the technological revolution.

“It creates a framework of principles rather than a rigid and inflexible code, and it seeks a fair balance between reputation and public information on matters of public interest.”

The peer said his bill would:

  • Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest
  • Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’
  • Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters
  • Protect those reporting on proceedings in Parliament and other issues of public concern
  • Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation

Lord Lester’s plans were welcomed by campaigning groups such as the Libel Reform Group which said: “In light of Lord Lester’s Bill, the Libel Reform Campaign is asking: will the Government now make clear its plans for reform? Will it support, adopt or develop this Bill?”

A spokesman for the Society of Editors said: “As ever the devil will be in the detail of any reform and in the meantime, Lord Lester’s bill does not deal with the most urgent need for change – the reform of success fees in conditional fee arrangements that are stifling academic and scientific debate and seriously hindering serious journalism in the public interest.

“This issue is not mentioned by Lord Lester because it can be dealt with very simply elsewhere and we urge the government to act now.”

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