The proposals aim to bring libel law up to date, striking the balance between protecting people’s right to free speech from unjustified libel actions, while enabling people who have genuinely been defamed to protect their reputations. They also suggest ways to speed court cases up to cut the costs associated with defamation proceedings.
The Ministry of Justice has been running a consultation on the draft Bill, encouraging as many people as possible to get involved in shaping the future of libel law in the UK, and this is due to close on Friday.
Justice Minister Lord McNally said people should seize the opportunity to make their views on this important issue known:
‘There is no doubt that the law in this area is out of date. In recent years an increased threat of costly libel actions has placed a chilling effect on the work of scientists, academics and investigative journalists - and this has to stop.
‘But we must ensure that when we reform the law, we strike the correct balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and protection of reputation on the other, and that is why we have been running this consultation.
‘I believe the way to find the right solution is to get as wide a range of views as possible. This draft Bill is a unique opportunity to shape the future of our libel law, and I would encourage anyone who has not already shared their views to get in touch and give us their comments on our proposals.’
The draft Bill includes provision for:
- A new ‘public interest’ defence which can be used by defendants in defamation cases.
- A requirement for claimants to demonstrate substantial harm, or likely substantial harm, to their reputation before they can sue.
- Reducing so-called ‘libel tourism’ by making it tougher to bring overseas claims which have little connection to the UK in the English courts.
- A single publication rule, meaning repeat claims for libel cannot be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet.
The consultation paper also includes questions on a number of other areas not currently featured in the draft Bill. These include the role of the internet, and a new court procedure to cut the sometimes overwhelming costs associated with libel actions by encouraging early resolution of key issues. The Government will then consider whether these measures should be included when the substantive Bill is put before Parliament.
The consultation is open until 10 June
Notes to editors
For more information contact the Ministry of Justice Press Office on 0203 334 3536
The full measures included in the Draft Bill are as follows:
a new requirement that a statement must have caused, or is likely to cause, substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory
a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest
a statutory defence of truth (replacing the current common law defence of justification)
a statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment)
provisions updating and extending the circumstances in which the defences of absolute and qualified privilege are available
introduction of a single publication rule to prevent an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed
action to address libel tourism by ensuring a court will not accept jurisdiction unless satisfied that England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place to bring and action against someone who is not domiciled in the UK or an EU Member State
removal of the presumption in favour of jury trial, so that the judge would have a discretion to order jury trial where it is in the interests of justice.
- Issues for consultation which have not been included in the draft Bill at this stage, but which the MoJ seeks views on, are:
Responsibility for publication on the internet. The paper seeks views on whether the law should be changed to give greater protection to secondary publishers such as internet service providers, discussion forums and (in an offline context) booksellers, or alternatively how the existing law should be updated and clarified.
A new court procedure to resolve key preliminary issues at as early a stage as possible, so that the length and cost of defamation proceedings can be substantially reduced.
Whether the summary disposal procedure - where the court has the power to resolve a case quickly if either the claimant or respondent has no reasonable chance of success - should be retained, and if so whether improvements can be made to it.
Whether there should be wider use of the court’s powers to order publication of a summary of its judgment in defamation cases, particularly where a suitable apology or correction cannot be agreed upon by both sides.
Whether further action is needed beyond the proposals in the draft Bill and the introduction of a new court procedure to address issues relating to an inequality of arms in defamation proceedings, including whether any specific restrictions should be placed on the ability of corporations to bring a defamation action.
Whether the current provisions in case law restricting the ability of public authorities and bodies exercising public functions to bring defamation actions should be placed in statute and whether these restrictions should be extended to other bodies exercising public functions.
- The draft Bill relates to the law in England and Wales only.