POLITICS
11/05/2012 12:25 BST | Updated 11/05/2012 12:30 BST

Ken Clarke Publishes Defamation Bill To Reform Libel Laws Following Queen's Speech

Major reforms of the libel laws which will see would-be claimants having to show they have suffered serious harm to their reputations, or are likely to do so, before they can take a defamation case forward, have been unveiled in a new Defamation Bill.

The Bill, promised in the Queen's Speech on Tuesday, follows a long campaign for reform by critics of the current defamation laws, who have argued that they are weighted too heavily in favour of claimants and have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said as he published the Bill: "Freedom of speech is essential in a democratic society.

"The Defamation Bill will rebalance the law to ensure those who have genuinely been defamed can still take action and seek redress, but without the threat of such action unjustifiably hindering freedom of expression.

"The current system is complex, unwieldy and expensive. These reforms will provide clarity, ease the threat of long and costly libel proceedings and make it easier for trivial cases to be dismissed without undermining individuals' ability to protect their reputation."

As well as requiring a would-be claimant to be able to show that his or her reputation has suffered or is likely to suffer serious harm - a reform intended to reduce the number of trivial claims being taken to the courts - the Bill will also give courts the power to order a losing defendant in a libel case to publish a summary of its judgment.

The summary should be agreed between the parties, but the court would be able to decide the wording itself if the parties failed to do so.

The Bill will also introduce a single-publication rule, so that the one-year limitation period in which a libel action can be brought would run from the date of the first publication of material, even if the same article is subsequently published on a website on a later date.

The reform is intended to end the current situation, dating from a case in 1849 involving the wildly eccentric Duke of Brunswick, by which material in newspapers' online archives, and on other websites, is regarded as being republished every time it is downloaded which, in effect, leaves the archive operator with a limitless risk of being sued.

The Bill will also replace the common law defences of justification and honest comment with new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion.

The so-called Reynolds defence of responsible journalism published in the public interest also gets statutory recognition, as responsible publication on a matter of public interest.

Website operators will receive extra protection, with a special defence if they can show that they did not post the statement in question in a libel case on to a website.

The Bill will also extend privilege to peer-reviewed articles in scientific and academic journals - campaigners for libel reform have long complained that many articles have been dropped by such publications because of the threat of libel actions which they say has had a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate.

It also aims to restrict so-called libel tourism by reforming the law so that the courts do not have jurisdiction to handle defamation cases brought against people who do not live in the UK or a European Union member state unless "England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action".

The presumption that defamation trials will be held with a jury will also be abolished, although judges will be able to order a jury trial if they believe it necessary in the interests of justice.

Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, one of the organisations which comprises the Libel Reform Campaign, said: "We're delighted to see the publication of the Bill.

"It's a significant step forward for the protection of freedom of expression in the UK but the battle's not quite over. We'd like to see a more robust public-interest defence and will continue to campaign on this, amongst other amendments to the Bill."

Solicitor Caroline Kean, a defamation specialist and partner at law firm Wiggin LLP, said: "The Bill contains some good proposals, including the single-publication rule (no need to worry about web archives) and a new privilege for peer-reviewed articles in scientific and academic journals.

"However, with the removal of juries, the determination of whether something was in the public interest and had a defamatory meaning will be the sole preserve of conservative, white, middle-class judges. Hardly a culturally diverse group."

Solicitor Rebekah Finch, a defamation specialist at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "The changes are a step towards bringing the law into the 21st century.

"Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have led to a surge in the number of defamation cases relating to content published online, with the medium meaning statements can be spread very quickly.

"Because of these new challenges, the aim of the Bill is to strike a better balance between the right to speak freely without fearing legal action and ensuring that an individual is still able to protect their reputation if they have been defamed."