- Government promises to bring new libel law into effect by end of the year
- Libel Reform Campaign marks most significant reform of English libel law since 1843
- The Defamation Act is a victory for citizens’ groups and democratic pressure
Scientists, authors, human rights activists, consumer champions and citizens gathered last night to celebrate the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. The four-year libel reform campaign brought together hundreds of individuals and community organisations who wrote to MPs, came to Parliament and joined in scrutiny of drafts of the new law, while bloggers, publishers, scientists and authors put their arguments directly to politicians in what has been described as one of the most successful campaigns of the 21st century.
As a result, foreign nationals will no longer be able to pursue spurious libel cases through London’s High Court. Corporations will have to prove financial harm before they can sue. And for the first time, there will be a statutory public interest defence.
But work still needs to be done. We still need to see new effective regulations for websites passed by Parliament, civil procedure rules to help early strike out of trivial claims quickly and cheaply, and costs protection rules to ensure fairness and access to justice.
The Secretary of State must now commence the Act to put the new laws into effect. Minister Lord McNally said today: “Work is being taken forward on these aspects to ensure that we can commence the Defamation Act 2013 before the end of the year.” Read the Right Honourable Lord McNally’s statement on the Defamation Act 2013 here.
The Libel Reform Campaign, supporters and parliamentarians gathered at the Free Word Centre on 12 June to discuss all that has been achieved and what needs to happen next and to launch our new document ‘Libel reform – what next?’
Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN, member of the Libel Reform Campaign: “Thanks to English PEN members, fellow campaigners, grassroots and parliamentary support, we now have a Defamation Act. Free speech is safer than it’s ever been from libel bullies and legal threats. But there’s still some way to go to ensure that the law is as robust as it needs to be in practice to protect freedom of expression – and we’ll be continuing to campaign until the necessary regulations and procedure rules are in place.”
Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science, member of the Libel Reform Campaign: “A campaign of small organisations, thousands of individuals and good parliamentarians has achieved changes that were denied to citizens and publishers for a century. The weight of mounting injustice which inhibited citizens from talking freely about their society, about what to believe and why, has shaped a Defamation Act that is a major step to reforming our archaic libel laws. There is much to be proud of here, not least the courage of so many people who spoke up and made politicians listen. But the new law sits without a start date, and people are still being threatened, bullied and frustrated under the old laws. The Government should delay no longer and commence the new Defamation Act.”
Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship, member of the Libel Reform Campaign: “The Defamation Act is a step forward for free speech in the UK, but we need the law to be enacted as soon as possible to stop trivial and vexatious cases. The government also needs to publish its proposals to stop people suing online intermediaries for content they didn’t publish, cut the disproportionate costs of libel actions and rules to strike out bullying cases early on.”
Minister for Justice Lord McNally: “I know that the Act does not contain absolutely everything that the Libel Reform Campaign wanted. However, I do believe that it contains a series of measures which will provide valuable support for freedom of expression. Whilst enactment is a very significant step down the road it is of course not the end of the process. My determination to ensure that the new legislation is effective extends to a desire to see that the section 5 regulations are passed through Parliament successfully; and that the new costs protection regime for defamation and privacy cases and other necessary changes to the Civil Procedure Rules are introduced to ensure that people with limited resources are not put at a disadvantage and that cases can be resolved as quickly and cheaply as possible. Work is being taken forward on these aspects to ensure that we can commence the Defamation Act 2013 before the end of this year.”
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: “I hope and believe that we have achieved balanced reforms that may become models across the common law world. That is why this event is a well-deserved celebration in which I am privileged to take part.”
Dr Julian Huppert MP for Cambridge: “This Act delivers huge reforms to the libel laws in the UK, giving us all protection to publish freely without fear of court action for defamation. It is particularly relevant to doctors, researchers, journalists and scientists allowing them to report their findings without fear of costly legal action; this is a major step forward. I am incredibly proud to be a member of the party which has successfully fought to get the Defamation Act passed.”
Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh: “I think many of us who were victims of libel are grateful that all our battles were not fought in vain. The Defamation Bill is undoubtedly a step forward, but it is now essential to address the particular issues that relate to the online world and to establish the court procedures that will cut costs and speed up the resolution of cases.”
Dr Evan Harris, Libel Reform Campaign Parliamentary adviser: “There is no doubt that this legislation is a step forward in the protection of free speech, but its impact will have to be kept under review to see whether it actually achieves what is intended. New or improved defences are of little benefit if publishers of modest means cannot meet the cost of defending their words, so access to justice remains a key and unresolved issue.”
Justine Roberts, CEO and co-founder of parenting forum Mumsnet: “As a long-time member of the Libel Reform Campaign, Mumsnet warmly welcomes the passing of the Defamation Act. It’s not perfect, and of course we don’t yet have the full detail on how the regulations will deal with publication on the internet; we’re hoping those will be proportionate and sensible, and far-sighted enough to cope with the speed at which online communications are developing. But we applaud the hard work of everyone involved, and are very happy to have been a part of this much-needed reform.”
Charmian Gooch, Director, Global Witness: “For too long, those wishing to publish matters of vital public interest have been faced with a notoriously unfriendly legal landscape weighted towards aggressive claimant lawyers and vested interests. The impact of this is difficult to overstate – quite simply it has stifled public debate. The Defamation Act is a long-overdue step in the right direction. What’s needed now is to build on this momentum and make sure that charities and others are not crushed by the expense of defending claims and that it is easier to strike out claims early.”
Kate Briscoe, Founder, Legal Beagles: “On the day the Defamation Act was finally passed, after an agonising last minute scare, I was finally able to feel safe and positive about the responsibility of running such a potentially controversial website as Legal Beagles. We criticise a LOT of major companies for poor treatment of consumers. We expose wrong doing and we need to be able to write without ‘looking over our shoulder’ in fear of the next threat. The Defamation Act provides the beginning of a fairer playing field for consumer websites such as Legal Beagles. The result is quite simply a stunning victory for free speech and fairness in the UK.”
Dr Peter Wilmshurst, consultant cardiologist and defendant in NMT Medical v Wilmshurst: “I hope that the Defamation Act will make it easier for scientists, doctors and others to openly discuss concerns of public interest without being sued for libel, but I fear that so long as the legal process in England remains unbelievably expensive, those with the most money will continue to silence ordinary people with limited resources who wish to raise concerns. The astronomical costs of defamation actions are doubly unjust because they effectively deny ordinary individuals with limited resources the right to protect their reputations when wealthy individuals or organisations set out to damage them. Only when the costs of defamation actions are brought down, so that all citizens can both defend their views and defend their reputations will the laws be just.”
Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society of Editors: “The Libel Reform Campaign was an alliance of disparate groups that shared a common goal that libel laws in the UK born of the Victorian times need to be made fit for purpose in a fast moving, high tech 21st century. The reforms achieved are a huge start that will aid freedom of expression for scientists, academics, authors, the media and the public while still protecting reputations. But the improvements must be seen as work in progress in areas where powerful vested interests have blocked change. Pressure must be maintained to implement the reforms across the UK, especially in Northern Ireland which is set to become the new favoured resort for libel tourism.”
Richard Lloyd, Executive Director, Which?: “The Defamation Act is a big step towards protecting freedom of speech while ensuring the law is fit for purpose for public interest publication in the digital age. It is a significant and important victory that the Act introduces a proper statutory public interest defence based on the reasonable belief of the publisher. Importantly, the new law should also reduce the number of libel threats used purely for everyday reputation management by requiring companies to show actual or likely serious financial loss as part of any claim. However, the Government’s job is not quite done and care must be taken in drafting the regulations for website operators to ensure a sensible and proportionate balance is achieved between freedom of expression and reputation online.”
Hardeep Singh, freelance journalist and defendant in His Holiness v Singh: “The Libel Reform Campaign has made history by challenging the status quo. It has been a pleasure to be part of the lobby for change and celebrate this monumental success. Taking on a wealthy foreigner in the libel courts and facing ruin is an emotional roller coaster ride, the community of libertarians who stood by me acted like a soothing balm through the tumult of four years in the courts. I consider them all friends for life. I’d like to extend my congratulations to Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and English Pen, as well as all of those who supported me throughout my journey taking on ‘His Holiness’. The Defamation Act will only make it fairer for others who want to speak out on matters of public interest and hold those in power accountable. This is a milestone which will be remembered by future generations to come.”
Amanda Craig, novelist: “When I had my novel A Vicious Circle accused of libelling David Sexton, a critic and ex-boyfriend from university of fifteen years before, I could not believe anyone could possibly take it seriously. Anyone who has ever been accused of libel might understand the nightmare I was plunged into.”
Jake Arnott, novelist: “In 2006 I was sued for libel over my novel Johnny Come Home. One of the minor characters in the book was a record producer who preyed on teenage boys and I had accidentally given him the same name as someone who had worked in the music industry. There was never any intention on my part to defame this person but intention or the lack of it is not an issue in libel law as it stands. Apart from the name, the identification of this person with my character was tenuous (he was a singer, not a producer and it turned out it wasn’t even his real name at all but a stage name) but the burden of proof is heavily weighed against the defendant in British libel law. I was personally liable, not my publisher. I had to pay £25,000. The way things are individual writers are extremely vulnerable. I feel no grudge against the plaintive in this case (though I do wish we might have settled the matter in a more amicable manner) but I do resent the system. Two thirds of the substantial sum I had to pay were legal costs.”
The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of three charities: Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science. It was formed in 2010 to campaign for reform of the libel laws to protect free speech and open debate. 60,000 people and more than 100 organisations including Citizens Advice, Nature, Mumsnet, Global Witness, Which?, Amnesty, Society of Authors and the Royal College of GPs support the campaign. www.libelreform.org