Yesterday saw the long-awaited publication of the Government's draft Defamation Bill, with the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke MP recognising that
the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.
The Bill, which includes many of the substantial provisions called for by the Libel Reform Coalition last week, was welcomed by free speech campaigners as 'a great starting point’ to ensure the first overhaul of our archaic libel laws.'
Amongst the provisions successfully campaigned for are:
· Easier ‘strike out’ of trivial or inappropriate claims by raising the threshold of harm before a libel action can proceed
· A curtailment of ‘libel tourism’ with a stronger requirement to justify bringing a claim in this jurisdiction for claimants domiciled abroad
· A more effective and clearer defence of truth (justification)
· New clearer and wider statutory defence of honest opinion (fair comment)
· Extension of statutory qualified privilege to benefit NGOs and scientific conferences
· The introduction of a single publication rule with a one year cut
The Ministry of Justice also announced a major consultation exercise to complement the Bill, running from today until June 10th 2011, to canvass opinion on several key issues not tackled in the draft legislation. These include vital issues relating to whether corporations should be allowed to sue for libel, , and whether internet service providers will continue to be held liable for comments made through them.
The consultation exercise serves to demonstrate that although the draft legislation is an excellent start on the path towards a truly liberal defamation law, there remains work to be done before English and Welsh libel law is up to date, fair and capable of fostering open discourse. The Libel Reform Coalition will continue to press for the law, when eventually passed in a years' time, to be just that.