Proposals for reforming the libel laws contained in the Government's draft Defamation Bill should go further to give greater protection to freedom of expression, a joint committee of MPs and peers has declared.
Defamation law should be easier for ordinary citizens to understand - whether they were defending their reputations or their rights to freedom of speech - and the law should adapt to the culture of modern communications, which could be "instant, global, anonymous, very damaging and potentially outside the reach of the courts", the report said.
Reforms were also needed to reduce costs, by making mediation the norm, simplifying procedures, and enabling judges to decide major issues in cases at a very early stage, before the parties started racking up massive bills.
The committee welcomed most of the reforms contained in the Government's draft Defamation Bill, but also recommended that some further steps should be taken.
Committee chairman Lord Mawhinney said: "Defamation proceedings are far too expensive, which is a barrier to all but the richest. Our recommendations should help minimise the reliance on expensive lawyers and the courts, bringing defamation action into the reach of ordinary people who find themselves needing to protect their reputation or defend their right to freedom of speech."
The committee's report welcomes the reform in the Defamation Bill to end the presumption that libel trials should be heard with a jury, and says that while a judge should still be able to order a jury trial, the circumstances when this can be done "should generally be limited to cases involving senior figures in public life and ordinarily only where their public credibility is at stake".
It also calls for the test in the Defamation Bill of whether a libel case should be allowed to go ahead - whether the material published caused "substantial harm" to someone's reputation - should be tightened to require "serious and substantial harm".
The report calls for greater protection for scientists and academics writing in peer-reviewed articles, and for publishers in reporting on their debates at conferences.
The press should also have absolute privilege to protect it from being sued for defamation over a fair and accurate report of what is said in Parliament, while communications between MPs and their constituents should be protected by qualified privilege - a defence which can be defeated if a claimant can demonstrate that the author of an allegedly defamatory statement was acting with malice.
The committee supports the Bill's proposed introduction of a "single publication rule" - that is, a rule that the one-year limitation period within which a claimant can sue over an allegedly defamatory statement runs from the day the material is first published. At present, the law says that every time an article is downloaded or accessed from the internet amounts to a new publication, meaning a would-be claimant has another year in which to launch a libel action.