The UK libel system has become a bloated and Kafkaesque means of transferring millions from cash-strapped editorial budgets to high-profile legal firms.
And for some brave and honest individuals speaking out about matters of public interest it has become a torture chamber.
So it is fantastic news that deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is talking the talk on libel reform and building on promises made by the last Labour government to reform the system.
He reveals today that the draft Libel Reform Bill – expected in March – will tackle the main problems with the current system:
- A new statutory defence for those speaking out on matters of public interest
- Action to stop those cashing-in by threatening libel claims on trivial grounds
- New measures to curb the excesses of a no win, no fee system which has seen costs spiral into the hundreds of thousands for claimant lawyers dwarfing any damages paid out.
In a special report about libel reform in the January edition of Press Gazette we looked at the effect the current system has had on those at the sharp end.
We spoke to freelance journalist Hardeep Singh – who is now entering the fourth year of a devastating libel battle with an obscure Indian holy man who is suing over a story which appeared in the Sikh Times and he says wrongly labelled him as “the leader of a cult” and an “imposter”.
Hardeep did not even get paid for the piece in question. It was about a religious and theological dispute – effectively about the man’s claim to be a successor to a Sikh saint – hardly something Earthly courts can rule on. And the Sikh Times has in any case already apologised to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj.
Yet His Holiness – who has far as we know has never set foot in the UK – continues to pursue Hardeep through the UK courts, with the latest hearing due to be held next month.
He told Press Gazette: “It has completely put my life on hold and prevented me from moving on and having a normal life. It’s affected my family life and personal relationships because I am constantly stressed with the fear of bankruptcy.”
NHS heart doctor Peter Wilmshurst is in a similar boat, because he had the temerity to tell a US medical conference that he had some doubts about the benefits of a device used to treat holes in the heart.
He has spent three years – and £100,00 of his own money – fighting a libel action against a US medical devices company over a report of his comments which appeared on a US website.
Again a foreign claimant is using the UK libel system to tackle the individual rather than the publication.
Wilmshurst told Press Gazette: “As a doctor I can’t retract what I said. If I retract and say what I said isn’t true it puts patients at risk.”
Clegg is right, the libel law of England and Wales has become a laughing stock. It will be great news for all journalists if action is finally taken to put it right.