A Joint Scrutiny Committee of both Houses of Parliament has reviewed the Government's draft Defamation Bill and recommended it be strengthened in key areas to provide a more robust defence of free speech. Campaigners seeking to reform the illiberal English and Welsh libel laws have welcomed the Joint Committee's findings as the changes they put forward would bring the Bill's provisions further into lines with the aims of the Libel Reform Campaign. The Campaign previously welcomed the draft Bill as 'a step in the right direction;' in welcoming the Joint Committee's report is as a significant positive development en route to new laws to protect free speech being passed, the Campaign has called on the Government to bring forward a revised Bill for inclusion in the next Queen's Speech, set to take place in Spring 2012.
The Joint Committee considered several ways in which the draft Bill could be improved, echoing many of the submissions made to the Ministry of Justice during the Bill's consultation:
- On corporations' ability to sue for libel, the committee accepted the Libel Reform Campaign’s concerns over the imbalance of resources between individuals and well-resourced corporations in libel and the “chilling effect” that libel claims from companies have on free speech. The Committee's proposals aim to introduce a new hurdle making it more difficult for companies to use their financial muscle and the threat of court action to silence critics, which the Campaign says may reduce the problem. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense about Science, welcomed measures that would redress the "equality of arms in the courtroom," particularly important when "scientists are being dragged through the courts for discussing evidence. This report adds to the case that our libel laws are stifling open science."
- On the need for claimants to show serious and substantial harm had been caused, the Committee accepted that by revising Clause 1 of the Draft Bill the Government would: “ensure that trivial cases are weeded out at an early stage by introducing a stricter test for determining whether a case is serious enough to go to court.” The provision of an early strikeout clause would give authors more confidence that bullying libel threats would be dismissed before they incurred unmanageable costs.
- On the need for a separate and robust public interest defence, the Committee noted there was “universal support” for a dedicated defence. The proposals tabled would go some way to strengthening the draft Bill's provisions on a public interest defence, but campaigners said there was more work to be done in this area. In particular, Dr Evan Harris, free speech activist and advisor to the Hacked Off campaign, said, “The lack of proper public interest defence in the draft bill and this report, is a real barrier to necessary reform. All sides in the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal have accepted that a new public interest defence for investigative and other public interest publications is needed to nurture the best of British journalism, but the draft bill merely codifies the existing inadequate defence and the Joint Committee recommends complicating it further.”
- On the need for fairer procedures to deal with libel claims against online comments, a variant of the Court-based system of take-down notices proposed by the Libel Reform Coalition, aimed at preventing extra-judicial censorship by threats to ISPs and web hosts, was adopted by the Committee. Regarding libel claims against online comments, Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, said, "Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities. For the health of public debate in this country, it’s crucial that the government continues to pursue this issue actively, rather than kicking it into the long grass. We hope that the committee’s report will provide an opportunity for the serious attention that this issue deserves.”
The Libel Reform Campaign is keen to stress that to protect the freedom of speech in this country, the Government should act urgently to pass a revised Defamation Bill, reflecting the Joint Committee's recommendations, in the next Parliamentary session. According to John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship: “In the last decade, journalists have been hampered from exposing those with power because of our restrictive libel laws. With media reform high on the agenda, the government must include the defamation bill in the next Queen’s speech.” Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh, added, “Many doctors, scientists, academics and journalists (like myself) have suffered at the hands of English libel law. The Government not only needs to heed the Joint Committee report, but it also needs to act urgently and pass an effective defamation bill at the first available opportunity, as promised in their manifestos. We urgently need a libel law that balances the right to reputation with the right to free speech.”
The Coalition Agreement committed the Government to reforming our libel laws, and following the Joint Scrutiny Committee's findings the Bill is almost ready to present to Parliament - the sooner it gets implemented the sooner scientists, journalists, authors and web hosts can rest assured that their freedom to engage in genuine debate in the public interest is assured.