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.

No comments: