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.


Russell said...

Better late than never from the Tories!

Rachit said...

Skepticism tells me that you're right to point out reform hasn't happened yet and that it is likely that many of the proposed reforms will be dropped or changed.
But that reflects legal and political inertia- the campaign is still a huge success whatever the eventual outcome!