Libel laws are having a 'detrimental effect' investigative reporting, warns peer

Justice minister says libel tourism has 'damaged' the country's reputation as an "advocate of freedom"
Labour claims reforms do not go far enough

An independent crossbench peer and BBC producer has welcomed new reforms to Britain's libel laws after warning of an increasing threat to journalists and scientists.

At the second reading of the Defamation Bill in the House of Lords yesterday, Viscount Colville of Culross said that "present libel laws are costing respectable media organisations a fortune in their own lawyers fees and exhausting journalistic talent in refuting these claims".

"This must be having a detrimental effect on the number of investigations that can be undertaken," he added.

"It can't be right that the rich and powerful are using our libel laws in an attempt to suppress reporting and using their lawyers like backstreet bullies to suppress investigation.

"This Bill goes a long way towards improving the situation and redressing the balance towards the protection of free speech."

He said that during research into a recent Panorama programme into a controversial organisation "the programme makers received upwards of 1,000 pages of legal letters at a rate of £400 a page to influence the content and prevent the programme's transmission".

Justice minister Lord McNally said new defamation laws will create a fairer balance between claimants and defendants when introduced yesterday's reading.

The Defamation Bill aims to tackle the problem of libel tourism and offers enhanced protection for academics and scientists.

But Labour warned the reforms needed to go further and the Government should take measures to make cases more affordable for poorer claimants.

Libel tourism

Lord McNally said it was about "striking the right balance between protection of freedom of expression on the one hand and protection of reputation on the other".

The legislation will change the defamation laws to set a higher hurdle which would require would-be claimants to show their reputation has suffered or is likely to suffer "serious harm".

Lord McNally said libel tourism had "damaged" the country's reputation as an "advocate of freedom" around the world.

He added: "Whilst relatively few foreign libel cases ultimately end up in the British courtrooms, I am concerned by the threat of proceedings by wealthy foreigners and public figures to stifle investigation and reporting."

Under the proposed new law people who did not live in England and Wales would only be able to take libel actions here if it was deemed by the courts to be the "most appropriate place".

Lord McNally said the Civil Justice Council was examining "cost protection for defamation and privacy claims" and would report by March.

He said cases could "drag on for too long leading costs to build up unnecessarily".

"Getting early resolution of key issues often leads to early settlements – that is something the Government is keen to encourage," he said.

'Serious and substantial harm'

For the Opposition, former Cabinet minister Lord Browne of Ladyton said Labour supported the Bill "to the extent it seeks to reform our outdated libel laws".

But he said that for the most part the Bill was a "codification" of the current system rather than "reform".

"The Bill does not make any specific provision for costs or striking out claims," he said.

"Instead we are asked to accept the assurance of Lord McNally that these issues will be dealt with elsewhere.

"We are concerned about access to justice under the Bill and would like to see the issue of costs dealt with under the Bill."

Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Mawhinney, who chaired the joint committee which examined the draft Bill, argued that the proposed wording of "serious harm" should be changed to "serious and substantial harm" to prevent "trivial" cases being brought.

He also warned there were "serious cost bar issues that need to be tackled head on by judges making early decisions".

"We need a defamation system that is for the many and not just geared to the convenience of the few," he added.

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