Defamation action declines but only after CFA boom

By Dominic Ponsford

The number of defamation cases reaching court have declined by almost a third over the last five years.

The statistics have been compiled by online legal information
company Sweet & Maxwell and reveal that 54 defamation cases reached
the courtroom in the year to May 1999, 96 in 2000, 95 in 2001, 89 in
2002, 77 in 2003, 85 in 2004 and 66 in 2005.

Korieh Duodu, a
barrister at media law specialists David Price, said the downturn may
be partly due to the impact of the 1999 Reynolds vs Times Newspapers
decision that created the defence of “qualified privilege” for stories
on a matter of public interest. He said the Woolf reforms, which
encourage parties to settle rather than reach court, may have also had
an effect.

Duodu said: “The combined effect of Woolf and Reynolds
may be that the most effective response to a defamatory article is not
necessarily serving proceedings on the editor the following morning.
The number of alternatives to litigation should mean the courts more
often take their place as the last resort.”

Duodu suggested that
the jump in cases between 1998 and 1999 could be due to the impact of
Conditional Fee Agreements, which allow solicitors to take cases on a
“no win, no fee” basis.

He said: “This has meant greater access to justice, particularly for those who cannot afford the high costs of libel actions.

“A hard-up claimant or defendant who has a worthy claim can now proceed without facing financial ruin if the case fails.”

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