Thursday, 15 April 2010


News reaches us via intrepid legal blogger Jack of Kent that the British Chiropractic Association has dropped its legal action against science writer Simon Singh by issuing a 'notice of discontinuance.' As Jack succinctly puts it: The case is over.

Too right - a great many congratulations to Simon, and to the thousands of people that now support the Campaign for Libel Reform.

Simon's case may well be over, but he will still face an uphill battle to recover all his costs, estimated to have reached £200,000 to date.

And despite this welcome victory, there remains a pressing need to reform English and Welsh Libel law - all three major political parties are now committed to reforming the law, and in the run-up to the election we must continue to press for new legislation that prevents cases like Simon's don't happen again.

For now it is right that we celebrate Simon's victory as it represents a watershed in the defence of open debate and free speech - to say nothing of the impact this case and the publicity it has generated will have on the protection of fair comment and scientific discourse.

More later possibly!


thanks to commenter John Collins (below), who alerted me to the BCA's statement on the issue - you can read the statement here.


Sense about Science have now put up a detailed statement from Simon, SaS's Tracey Brown and Simon's solicitor Robert Dougans. Please do read the whole thing as it goes a long way to demonstrating just how vital wholesale libel reform is despite the case against Simon being dropped - here are a couple of highlights though... Simon said,
English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest.
He went on to argue that reform is required to protect the likes of Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, who is being sued for raising safety concerns regarding a new medical device:
If Dr Wilmshurst loses his case then he will be bankrupted. It is ridiculous that a respected researcher such as Dr Wilmshurst, someone who has devoted his life to medicine, should be put under such pressure just for speaking his mind.
Robert Dougans said:
All that now remains to be settled is how much of Simon’s legal costs he can recover from the BCA, and how much he will have to bear himself. However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about 20,000 pounds. This - and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover - is the price he has paid for writing an article criticising the BCA for making claims the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled can no longer be made.

As has often been said, a victory of this sort comes at a price, a price that the Campaign for Libel Reform is adamant must not be paid in the future for the simple act of discussing matters of essential public interest.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

BREAKING NEWS - Conservatives commit to new Libel Bill to reform libel laws

The Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve MP has committed his party to reforming English and Welsh libel laws, confirming that their forthcoming manifesto will include
a fundamental review of the libel laws with a view to enacting legislation to reform them. This reform could best be done by means of a separate Libel Bill and this is the preferred approach for us
The Conservatives now join both the Liberal Democrats and Labour in promising to reform the widely criticised libel laws, demonstrating the far-reaching influence of the much-publicised Campaign for Libel Reform - according to the Campaign, 48,000 supporters have signed an online petition urging statutory reform, and have persuaded the majority of eligible MPs to sign a Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for fairness to be put at the heart of libel legislation. The national campaign is believed to be the first campaign by an NGO this year to get a manifesto commitment from all three major parties.

It is worth dwelling on that last point - I plan to write a longer piece on the successes of the Campaign and the wider lessons to be drawn from it, but that will have to wait; mainly because, despite a significant victory for libel defendant Simon Singh at the Court of Appeal, and even though there is now cross-party consensus on the need for reform, the nature of said reform is still in the balance and it will likely require continued pressure on Parliamentarians for all 10 of the Campaign's recommendations to be implemented. We've already see one cross-party body taking on board a large proportion of the Campaign's findings, but how many of these proposals will be translated into exact details in each party election manifesto remains to be seen - a critic might point out that, honourable exceptions aside, the Tory party has been the most reluctant to get behind libel reform, and that today's announcement of 'a review' is not the strongest endorsement - nonetheless, Conservative support for the cause is indeed welcome.

The reform of one aspect of libel law, that of the success fees charged by lawyers as party of 'conditional fee arrangements' (CFAs), has already fallen by the wayside; a victim of the 'wash-up' at the end of Parliament, infamous for pushing through the 'draconian and oppressive' (not my words, but those of Andrew Heaney of the TalkTalk Group) Digital Economy Act, the reforms were initially blocked by several MPs and then not deemed high-priority enough to be revisited as Parliamentary business drew to a close.

The lesson, then, must be that whilst cross-party support for the principles of libel reform are welcome advances in the right direction, the Campaign will continue to press the government until reform is realised, until our freedom to debate is enshrined in a balanced law.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Appeal upheld in Singh vs BCA - a significant victory for Simon, the libel reform campaign and free speech

As widely reported, Simon Singh has won his appeal against the pre-trail judgement on meaning in his defence against a libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association.

In a judgement welcomed by his lawyers as
a resounding victory before such an impressive court,
three of the most senior judges in the land dismissed the way in which the BCA reverted to libel action instead of accepting The Guardian's 'right to reply' offer, and rejected the submissions of the BCA case that the phrases
not a jot of evidence
happily promotes bogus treatments
represented libellous comment. Indeed, the Judges went further to say that
[plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying 'character assassination!', silence those who hold divergent views...
In a significant boost to the defence of scientific discourse, the judgement continued:
Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.
Let's take stock at this point, however. Simon's won his appeal on meaning, but the matter is far from over; according to the BCA's statement put out in response to the verdict,
we are considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and subsequently proceed to trial.
Now, it is up to the reader to decide whether they feel that, considering the BCA's statement concluded with the thought that
the BCA brought this claim only to uphold its good name and protect its reputation, honesty and integrity,
whether or not they have succeeded in this aim and would be wise to continue to trial in light of today's judgement. What is clear, nonetheless, is that whatever the outcome in Simon's own case, this judgement does two things. Firstly, it provides a precedent in case law to allow future victims of libel chill to bring a serious public interest defence - as Simon's solicitor Robert Dougans said,
Scientists have been – rightly – concerned about the consequences they might face if opponents seek to counter their arguments with a libel claim rather than by engaging in debate and research. The Court of Appeal’s brave decision today gives hope that important research on scientific matters will be protected against libel threats, and will hopefully make people think again before embarking on legal action hoping to shut down debate. It is clear from the judgment that the Court of Appeal is not satisfied with the current state of English libel laws, and recognises the absurdities and injustices that can result from them as they currently stand.

The second thing it does it highlight the pressing need for statutory reform - for Parliament to re-write English libel law to reflect the urgent need to protect freedom of speech from libel suits that threaten to quash responsible journalism and scientific debate. The Campaign for Libel Reform does not end here, even if today's judgement is seen as a turning point in Simon's case - as he himself says,
It is ridiculous that it has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a handful of words... I am still angry that libel is so horrendously expensive... There are hundreds more cases that never make it to court because people back down and apologise, and thousands more where writers, journalists and bloggers self-censor to avoid the chilling effect of libel law.
So in many ways today marks a significant moment not only in Simon's defence of his critical take on chiropractic, but a milestone in the battle to defend free speech - the Conservative MP David Davies, present at today's hearing, hoped that today would write a new chapter in the history of free speech. Here's hoping that his party will follow the Liberal Democrats in adding libel law reform to their manifesto, so that writers such as Simon no longer have to fear the iniquitous libel laws and can be free to discuss, debate, criticise and investigate the issues of scientific and political import that form our zeitgeist.