Polanski's court victory sparks fear of growth in libel tourism

By Roger Pearson

The High Court’s award of £50,000 libel damages from Vanity Fair to
film director Roman Polanski adds a new and worrying dimension to the
libel scene.

Before the case had even reached court, Polanski had fought a tough
and unique legal battle in which he won the right not to come to the UK
to give evidence for fear that if he did he would be arrested and
extradited to the US, where he is wanted for alleged child sex offences.

The
decision of the UK courts to allow him to evade the possibility of
being collared by the US justice system in this way is one that raises
a lot of questions.

However, the case of Polanski – at least until a possible appeal – is completed.

The question now is what effect it will have on the media.

Fugitives
from justice are invariably written about in disparaging terms that
would certainly tend to damage their reputations in the eyes of other
people.

Will this latest case, as media lawyer Mark Stephens has
suggested, expand the scope for so-called “libel tourism”, with an
added possible new benefit for claimants?As far as the question of
“libel tourism” is concerned – discounting the fact that Polanski was
allowed to give evidence by video link – Stephens said the situation
was becoming “a stain on our judicial system”.

“Claimants should be using the law of the land in the countries where these matters were intended to be heard,”

Stephens was quoted as saying the day after the verdict. “This decision heaps yet more disgrace on the British libel system.

“For
a French citizen to successfully sue an American publication under
English civil law without subjecting himself to the scrutiny of the
English criminal legal system is a blemish which will take years to
eradicate.

“The fact that he did not have to attend court will
only go to fuel the growth of libel tourism, under which all manner of
crooks can launder their reputations in our courts.”

He told
Press Gazette: “We have had celebrities, the famous and infamous,
heading into London to take advantage of our libel courts to launder
their reputations.

“If our libel courts are to maintain credibility, this abuse being perpetrated must be promptly addressed by the judiciary.

“Vanity
Fair is published in America and that is where the bulk of its intended
audience is based. That is where the case should have been heard –
under the legal system that the publishers would have intended to
comply with.

“This action against it would not have succeeded there.

“The
outcome of all this is that he was allowed to mount the action in the
UK, which I consider inappropriate, and then not to attend because of
the risk of being arrested.

“I think the whole thing brings a stain on the judicial system.”

Libel claimants can enjoy an unfair advantage

SETTING A DANGEROUS PRECEDENT

According to Niri Shan, from law firm Taylor Wessing, the Polanski
verdict tips the scales of justice even further in favour of claimants
in the London libel courts.

He said: “Giving evidence via video link gives the claimant an
unfair advantage because it is much less stressful than actually
appearing in court. If you are actually in court and subject to
cross-examination, it is more difficult.

“This is already the
most claimant-friendly jurisdiction in the world and if you are
allowing foreign claimants to give evidence via video link, it sets a
dangerous precedent.

“We could have claimants who are accused of
being terrorists based in places like the Middle East who can’t set
foot in this jurisdiction but are able to sue for libel.

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