Government libel reform bill set for March 2011

The Government expects to publish proposals for reforming the libel law in March next year, it has emerged.

A newly published Ministry of Justice Structural Reform Plan shows that developing options for reform is expected to take from June this year until March next year.

The plan gives as a milestone the publication next March of a “draft Defamation Bill for the reform of libel laws published for pre-legislative scrutiny”.

But it gives no indication of a timetable for the introduction or passage of the actual legislation.

The plan says: “Structural Reform Plans are the key tool of the Coalition Government for making departments accountable for the implementation of the reforms set out in the Coalition Agreement.

“They replace the old, top-down systems of targets and central micromanagement.

“The reforms set out in each department’s SRP are designed to turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities.”

It adds: “We have adopted a cautious view of the timescales for delivering all legislative measures due to the unpredictability of pressures on Parliamentary time.”

The Government announced on 9 July, towards the end of the second reading debate on the Defamation Bill introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, that it would reform the libel laws to provide a “fair balance” between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.

Justice Minister Lord McNally said there would be a wide-ranging consultation exercise over the summer with publication of a draft Bill early in the new year.

This was not a “vague promise” but a “firm commitment to act on this matter”, he told peers.

The move would give ministers a “strong case for making time in the 2011-12 legislative programme for a substantive Bill”, Lord McNally said, adding: “We recognise the concerns raised in recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression – particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism.

“In reviewing the law we want to focus on ensuring that freedom of speech and academic debate are protected and a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.

“We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved so people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation but so that freedom of speech is not unjustifiably impeded.”

Lord McNally said: “Ensuring the right balance is struck is a difficult and sensitive exercise.

“It raises very complex issues on which a wide range of differing views are likely to be held. It’s important to ensure that that range of views from all interested parties are taken into account before we move further.”

The Government was “not rushing to legislation but considering very carefully how to proceed”, he added.

Lord Lester said that, while listening to the minister, he had “wondered if I’m alive at all or whether I’m in heaven, because I never thought to hear a reply of that kind”.

The Government had indicated an “open-mindedness for reform, a willingness to get on, a willingness to listen”, he said, adding: “I’m sure that it’s better for the Government to have a draft Bill and then a joint committee looking at the draft Bill… and then, hoping that we’re in good health, an actual Bill, which I hope will start in this House.”

Lord Lester’s Bill was given an unopposed second reading.

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