Libel Reform: the endgame?

It has been a long and winding road but tonight the journey towards libel reform in England and Wales paused in the historic Great Hall of the Inner Temple to take stock.

The wheels are turning and the machine of government is moving slowly in the right direction. The coalition came to power with a promise of reform. A parliamentary committee has met to consider the case for change and reported their findings last October. At the beginning of this month, the government responded.

Libelreform rally - Inner Temple, London  2012

Clockwise from top left: Lord McNally, David Allen Green, Tracey Brown, Sir Stephen Sedley


While the government’s response represents a significant step forward, it does not yet meet all the demands of the ongoing campaign. The specific remaining weaknesses identified by the campaign are as follows:

  • The current libel laws chill speech on matters of public interest and on expressions of opinion on matters in the public realm. We need a new effective statutory public interest defence. Instead, the Government is only proposing minor changes to an already complex, unwieldy and expensive defence, called “Reynolds Privilege”.
  • Libel laws are used by corporations and associations to squash any criticism and manage their brand. The laws need rebalancing to protect the ordinary individual or responsible publisher, by restricting the ability of such “non-natural persons” to sue for libel or threaten to do so.
  • The law allows trivial and vexatious claims. There should be easier “strike out” of trivial or inappropriate claims at an early stage.

Tonight supporters of the campaign assembled to reflect on how far we have come and to plan the strategy for the endgame.

Although the government appears engaged and Minister of Justice, Lord McNally, spoke encouragingly of the prospects for change, several speakers warned campaigners not to be too complacent. The signs are encouraging that plans for a new defamation bill will be included in the Queen’s speech in May of this year. But there is as yet no guarantee of that. Even if the bill is brought forward, it is not clear that sufficient parliamentary time will be awarded to the legislation to ensure that it gets onto the statute books.

In spite of the notes of caution, the meeting was infused with measured optimism. Lord McNally conceded that in its present form the draft legislation falls short of the reforms that the campaign has been seeking. But in a perceptive speech, David Allen Green saw advantages in this imperfection. If the bill had simply echoed the dream legislation of the campaign, he noted, that would be a signal that the government wasn’t taking it seriously. The residual imperfections can therefore be read as a sign of real intent. McNally also pointed out that the bill could yet be improved in its passage through parliament.

And just in case anyone was starting to think that libel reform was a battle for yesterday, given the successes of Simon Singh, Peter Wilmshurst and Hardeep Singh in challenging recent suits, there were potent reminders of the scale of the problem. Nick Cohen saluted the gathering but warned against group-think by supporters of reform. Pointing out that the libel laws in England and Wales make these countries the enemies of liberty, he also drew attention to the fact that the need for libel reform is not just for journalists because, in this modern age, anyone who writes on the Internet is at risk.

Then, astonishingly, Simon Singh, stepped up to the microphone and revealed that in 2010, as he was battling the suit brought against him by the British Chiropractic association, he received another threat of libel over remarks he had made about climate change. Thankfully in that case a stern rebuttal from his lawyer had seen off the threat.

But the threats remain. Simon Singh may have learned how to cope through bitter experience but the ease with which suits can be slung though the courts is terrifying — as is illustrated by the ongoing case of Vaughan Jones, sued for a book review.

If we are to clear a space in the public domain for proper and robust debate on all matters of real public interest, we urgently need to reform our libel laws. With continued pressure, parliament may soon have a once-in-a-generation chance to enact reform. But the job is not yet done — as Tracey Brown of Sense about Science reminded us in her closing remarks. You may yet be called upon to write to your MP and to play your part in history.

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5 Responses to Libel Reform: the endgame?

  1. Interesting summary, Stephen. The third point, about “trivial and vexatious claims”, caught my eye, as it reminded me of a similar strategy in patent litigation. One technique large companies use to squash competition by smaller competitors is to file essentially frivolous suits claiming patent infringement. Even if baseless, these can be effective at scaring investors off, which in turn might cause the smaller company to fail. If successful, the suit never need be prosecuted in court and the baseless nature of it never determined.

    Not naming any names, of course, and I’m sure no UK-based companies would ever engage in such shenanigans, oh no no no.

    • Stephen says:

      You cynic.

      But seriously, the ease with which claims of libel can be made is one of the more significant weaknesses of the present legislation. To help address that issue (among other things) Index and English PEN have launched the Alternative Libel Project (PDF), which proposes new mechanisms for mediation of disputes.

    • Grant says:

      Now if you could kindly head over our way and take that up with that IP lawyer who keeps posting guest posts in that blog written by a public relations journalist/writer who promotes* this and that science-related business 😉

      (* uncritically IMO.)

  2. Thanks for the continuing updates, Stephen!

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