Libel Reform – smells like victory

For those few resilient readers who have weathered the year-long storm of open access posts at Reciprocal Space and still look in here occasionally for reports of the libel reform campaign, there is good news.

Libel Reform Campaign logo

Within days I should be able to remove the Libel Reform Campaign button from my web-site because late yesterday afternoon the Defamation Bill had its final reading in the House of Lords. It should pass back to the Commons today for approval (but see updates below!) and then proceed to the statute book.

House of Lords Libel Reform Debate
Lord McNally leading the final Lords debate on the Defamation Bill

 

What a long and rocky road it has been since the campaign started in 2009. Even at the end, it looked as if the bill might be derailed. First, by an amendment introduced by Lord David Puttnam which added provisions on privacy in order to provoke the Government into addressing the legislative challenges to press freedom raised by the Leveson report. That move, which lacked cross-party support and seemed likely at one point to prevent the Defamation Bill being reintroduced to Parliament, was eventually resolved after long night of political horse-trading.

Then on Tuesday last week amendments approved by the Lords which sought to oblige companies to demonstrate real financial damages before suing for libel and to prevent firms contracted to provide public services from using libel law to stymie criticism (echoing a principle established for public bodies) were undone in the House of Commons by a Government-supported amendment introduced by Sir Edward Garnier MP.

It was all getting very complicated — opinions varied on whether the battle was lost or won; see, for example, the blogposts published following the Commons debate by David Allen Green and Prateek Buch.

And then on Monday came news of a government U-turn on the question of enacting a stricter financial test on companies to demonstrate real damage before they could bring a libel action. That volte-face duly transpired in the debate in the Lords yesterday where a government amendment providing for such a test was approved. Why the government changed its mind in the past week remains a mystery to me, as do many aspects of parliamentary language and procedure.

Nevertheless the upshot is that we are on the verge of having significantly reformed libel laws in England and Wales. Not everything the campaign wanted has been won but there is little doubt that the law will change for the better. With enactment of the bill we will have a stronger public interest defence, protection for peer-reviewed academic publications, a test for real financial damages to prevent libel chill and reduce the power imbalance between powerful organisations and private individuals, and a legal framework that is updated for the internet age.

I cannot pretend to understand the exact nature and implications of all the provisions of the final bill — I hope that the legal bloggers will soon weigh in with analysis of what exactly has changed (see final update below*) — but yesterday was most definitely a good day for free debate.

Having observed from near and far over the past few years, it has been an interesting and remarkable journey — a heady mix of social media, chiropracticcelebrity endorsement and courtroom drama, not to mention the unseen hours and hours of dogged campaigning. Special gratitude must go Simon Singh for having the courage to face down the libel threat from the now discredited British Chiropractic Association, a move that was key to igniting the campaign, but particularly also to the folks at Sense About Science, English PEN and Index on Censorship for gathering public support for a campaign that has changed the law. It feels like… democracy.

 


Update (09:51, 24-4-13): Perhaps I wrote too soon because just moments after publishing this post this morning came news of another 11th hour amendment from Sir Edward Garnier MP that aims to reverse the government-backed change made to the Defamation Bill in the Lords yesterday. It is to be hoped that the government will secure support for its own amendment in the Commons this afternoon but we shall have to wait and see…

Update (14:50, 24-4-13): …fortunately, Garnier could read the writing on the wall and, in the end, did not press for a vote on his amendment. Immediately thereafter, and just a few moments ago, the Commons voted to approve the final amendment agreed yesterday in the Lords. And so ends the Parliamentary journey of the Defamation Bill. It should soon reappear as the Defamation Act, 2013. 

Sir Edward Garnier and Peter Bottomley

Bottomley is amused to be defamed (under Parliamentary privilege) by Sir Edward Garnier

*Update (21:06, 24-4-13): The Libel Reform Campaign has broadly welcomed the new legislation while also pointing out some of the missed opportunities. For more detail, see the useful summary (PDF) of the strengths and weakness of the bill that has been passed. Some things will depend on the nature of the procedures to be introduced by government. Dr Evan Harris, who has been involved in the campaign from the start, scored the bill at 19/33 but thought that might rise to 26/33 depending on how new rules and regulations are implemented) 

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15 Responses to Libel Reform – smells like victory

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    What a contemptible self-service specimen Garnier is. How on earth does someone like him get to hold public office? He is a disgrace to his profession, to his government and to his country.

    • Stephen says:

      Careful now… I think he’s a libel lawyer. ;-)

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Yes indeed. But now he’ll have to prove that my statement caused him financial harm before he can sue. (In a pleasingly ironic twist, the new legislation will itself cause him him financial harm, but preventing his firm from profiting from frivolous but lucrative suits.)

  2. cromercrox says:

    I remain confused. As a journalist I am sensitive to the laws about libel (in the hallowed halls of Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, we have been known to receive spine-chilling briefings on the subject from our retained lawyers) so I hope the new provisions on libel will be made clear as soon as possible, with differences between the old and new situation explained.

  3. Loverat says:

    Obviously a great day and in response to the first post I would simply repeat what one recently retired judge observed about online comments – ‘his reputation will be determined by how he has behaved and seen to have behaved – rather than what people are saying about it’

    Still – this basic concept seems to be lost on the libel dinosaurs that remain who will continue trying to clog up the courts with their utter trivia and nonsense.

    Anyway – I think his whole behaviour should prompt another review about MPs other interests. No matter his motivation for trying to wreck this (interest as a legal professional or pure self interest) the vast majority of people will believe it was for selfish reasons. Given the likelyhood that his behaviour was always going to be perceived this way, you would think that he would have refrained from getting involved.

    One day perhaps we can finally move away from the trivia that QCs like him stand up and pursue with a straight face.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Your three updates are in a very funny order.

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