MPs have rejected an attempt to amend the Defamation Bill so as to allow relatives of a dead person to sue over libellous stories about their loved ones.
The bid to introduce the radical change to the law came yesterday when Bishop Auckland Labour MP Helen Goodman moved an amendment which would have allowed a dead person's spouse or partner, relatives, siblings or offspring to sue the publisher of an article they considered defamatory up to 12 months after the death.
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Goodman told MPs at a Committee Stage hearing: "There was a moral convention in this country once upon a time that people did not speak ill of the dead. That general shared behaviour has collapsed to such a degree since the original law in the 19th century that we need to return to it."
She cited three cases – reports following the death of a soldier who shot himself while overseas, the "notorious" article by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir which appeared after the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately, and the case of the Watson family, who have been campaigning in Scotland for a change in the law after the publication of what they say were defamatory stories about their murdered daughter which they also say led to their teenaged son's suicide.
Goodman said all MPs would agree "that we need to look again at the freedom to write what would be defamatory statements if the person were alive when they are deceased".
Such articles could have serious consequences, she said, adding: "The events show that vicious character assassination based on lies is often more damaging to someone after death than to a living person, because they cannot answer back.
"It adds to the grief and sense of injustice felt by close relatives. It is time Parliament addressed the issue."
But Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour MP Paul Farrelly said the issue was one of press standards rather than anything else, adding: "One of the unfortunate consequences of our libel law's restrictiveness is that quite often the truth only comes out when a person is dead.
"I invite the committee to think about what may or may not have been reported after Robert Maxwell's death. Had the amendment been in force, the full truth might not have come out for another year."
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said it was a long-established legal principle that a deceased person could not be defamed because reputation was personal.
"Relatives of the deceased also have no right of action, unless the words used reflect on their own reputations," he said.
"That reflects the central principle in civil proceedings generally, which is that a claim for damages can be brought only by the person who has suffered the injury, loss or, in this case, damage to his or her reputation as a result of the act or omission of another person."
Trying to allow relatives to sue for defamation over articles about the dead would bring "significant difficulties".
He added: "As I have indicated, it would go against the long-standing and fundamental principle of the law that reputation is personal. That could create a precedent for further extensions to the law that would have a broader impact on the media and publishing industries, and create difficulties for those involved in historical analysis and debate."
There would also be practical difficulties relating to defences, and there could be arguments over the truth of allegations about a deceased person's character which would distress the family.
In addition, the proposal would not prevent the publication of potentially defamatory articles about the deceased – it would simply delay publication until the one-year period had expired.
The committee voted by 11 to five to reject the amendment.