Effective reform of the “outdated and unbalanced” libel laws can only be delivered by the Defamation Bill if it stops companies and corporations from suing for libel and restricts them to actions for malicious falsehood, according to an Early Day Motion set down in the House of Commons.
The motion, sponsored by Cambridge Liberal Democratic MP Dr Julian Huppert, says the restriction is necessary to deliver effective libel reform and reduce “the chilling or censorious impact of bullying behaviour”.
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The same reasons justify relieving internet service providers (ISPs) and non-editorial web-hosts of liability for defamation unless a court specifically orders that they should be held liable, it says.
Libel law reform campaigners have called for companies and large corporations to be deprived of the right to sue for defamation, saying that many firms have mis-used the law to silence critics by threatening hugely expensive lawsuits.
In addition, the law at present allows that an ISP can be held liable for defamatory material on a website it hosts, even if it has no control over the content on the website.
This has meant that sometimes ISPs have shut down websites, or blocked some material on them as a result of a threatened libel action by a claimant who has been unable to persuade the publisher of the material to remove it.
So far a total of 13 MPs have signed the Early Day Motion, which welcomes the Government’s consultation on the concerns it raises, and “looks forward to the draft Bill being strengthened as it goes through the scrutiny process.
The motion, number 1636, reads: “That this House welcomes the publication of the draft Defamation Bill as an essential step towards the necessary and urgent reform of the UK’s outdated and unbalanced libel laws; notes that libel reform is a manifesto commitment from all three major parties, and was included in the Coalition programme; recognises that English libel law must allow individual citizens to be able to sue for libel when they have been the victim of false, irresponsible and damaging publications; further welcomes the inclusion of a new public interest defence in the draft Bill which should protect investigative journalism; believes this public interest defence should be strengthened to protect the citizen critic; further welcomes proposals in the Bill to raise the threshold of harm before action can be taken, to create statutory defences of truth and honest opinion, to introduce a single publication rule for the internet, and to reduce libel tourism; further believes that effective libel reform can only be delivered, and the chilling or censorious impact of bullying behaviour reduced, if companies and corporations are restricted to the use of malicious falsehood actions and if internet service providers and non-editorial web-hosts are only liable consequent to a specific order of a court, and welcomes the consultation on both these issues; applauds the efforts of the Libel Reform Campaign and hon. Members from all sides of the House in support of free expression; and looks forward to the draft Bill being strengthened as it goes through the scrutiny process.”
The draft Defamation Bill, which was unveiled by the Government on 15 March, includes a number of proposals for reforming the libel laws.
Other measures which reformers have been arguing should be introduced have instead been put out for consultation in a paper released with the Bill.
The signatories are: Liberal democrat MPs Dr Julian Huppert, Andrew George, John Leech, Bob Russell and Stephen Williams, Conservative MPs Sir Peter Bottomley, Robert Halfon and Mark Reckless, Labour MPs Martin Caton, Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Farrelly, and Denis McShane, and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.
Few Early Day Motions are actually debated in the Commons, but they are used a device to allow MPs to raise issues of concern and demonstrate their support for policies and principles.