Libel reform coming ‘by the autumn’

By Ian Dunt

Those campaigning for reform of Britain’s antiquated libel laws had cause to celebrate today after the justice minister announced a draft bill would be ready after the summer recess.

Speaking at the end of a session which saw peers debate Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s defamation bill, justice minister Lord McNally of Blackpool said: “When the House returns in the autumn we will have made progress on a draft bill.”

Private members’ bills rarely become law, although particular attention had been paid to Lord Lester’s effort because of his impressive track record in getting them turned into legislation.

“With the track record he has got I think the prospects of a defamation bill reaching the statute book are very ripe indeed,” the justice minister said.

Describing the bill as a “formidable piece of work”, he said he welcomed the second reading of the bill, but insisted it would need tweaking before being adopted by the government.

“I can’t agree that the government should simply adopt the bill,” he continued.

“My hope is that Lord Lester will give me and my advisors time to assess what has been said today.”

The comments clearly satisfied Lord Lester, who wondered if he was “alive at all or if I am in heaven, because I wasn’t expecting this response”.

He continued: “I am not interested in creating a bill for the media, I am interested in the individual, the critic, the newspaper.

“This bill will protect freedom of expression whilst ensuring fairness and responsibility in journalism, and the protection of an individual’s good reputation.

“If passed, it could provide a model in libel law for countries across the world, and secure the biggest shake up of English libel law for a generation.”

The bill would introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest and clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renaming them as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’.

It would also safeguard the reporting of proceedings in parliament, which became the focus of extensive media interest after a super injunction was imposed on the Guardian concerning the oil company Trafigura.

The super-injunction was revealed to have included a parliamentary question, triggering an angry backlash against Carter Ruck, which secured it on behalf of Trafigura, in the Commons.

The bill would also require claimants to show substantial harm, corporate bodies to show financial loss and encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.

The bill follows a heightened period of interest in libel law after the Trafigura scandal.

Science author Simon Singh recently won a well-publicised battle against the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote, also for the Guardian.

His solicitor advocate, Robert Dougans, expressed support for Lord Lester’s bill last May.

“Lord Lester’s bill should be welcomed by free speech campaigners. The proposals follow on from the Singh decision in expanding and enhancing the defence of honest opinion,” he said.

“This ought to be good news for all those seeking to engage in hard-hitting debate.

“The most important legacy might simply be putting much of libel law on a statutory basis.”

Most peers came out in support for the bill.

Former Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, who once chaired the science and technology select committee, used the occasion to make his maiden speech as Lord Willis of Knaresborough, and said the bill should go even further.

“So abused have our laws become that justice and right is constantly being denied to a wide variety of individuals and organisations who question the truth,” he said.

“The UK has not only become the world capital for libel tourism. Our citizens are increasingly being silence by the cost of defending even the most valid of expert opinion.”

Lord Lester’s two private members’ bills on making the European Human Rights Convention enforceable in British courts later became the model for the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Labour’s attempts to reform libel failed to reach the statute book at the end of the last parliament after they became victims of the wash-up period.