Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Campaigners to tell Parliament "Now is the time to reform our libel law" as further evidence of the law's chilling effect emerges

Campaigners seeking to refine the Government's Defamation Bill will tell MPs and Peers why English and Welsh libel laws are in urgent need of reform - on the day that yet more evidence of the law's chilling effect is revealed and a separate case reaches the High Court. Having cautiously welcomed the draft Defamation Bill, and backed the recommendations of Parliament's Joint Scrutiny Committee that called for key clauses to be strengthened, the libel reform campaign will once again press upon key Parliamentarians the need for radical changes to the law to protect free debate.

They will be joined by many victims of the chill that our illiberal and outdated libel laws, including representatives of the Citizens Advice Bureaux who will share their experience of libel threats - discussed for the first time today, the what the CAB has had to endure illustrates how voluntary organisations can be silenced from discussing information that is in the public interest by powerful interests.

Citizens Advice has produced two reports into the practices of agents, some of them law firms, who chase those accused of shoplifting for compensation through so-called 'civil recovery demands' and threaten civil litigation in the event they don't pay. The two reports published to date have been incomplete because of threats of legal action against Citizens Advice, and in 2009 the CAB spent its entire campaign and research contingency budget on libel-proofing their limited reports leaving no money to investigate other matters.

Given that over 750,000 civil recovery demands have been issued and the Law Commission believes that in many instances consumer rights may have been violated by the practices of the agents involved, there is a clear public interest in reports such as those written by Citizens Advice containing full disclosure. If the public is to be kept informed about the bullying, possibly illegal activities of those pursuing alleged (not always proven) shoplifters, it is vital that those wishing to discuss this matter can do so without fear of libel action. This isn't the first instance of consumer advice being subject to threats of libel action by powerful vested interests, as Which? magazine's editor will tell MPs tonight - but it is yet another reason that a robust public interest defence must be incorporated into the Defamation Bill as the campaign has long stipulated.

Today also sees the scientific journal Nature defending itself in the High Court against a libel claim by the editor of a journal that they criticised. Nature reported that the editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals had retired and highlighted controversies during his tenure. Nature has been preparing for this case for two years meaning hundreds of hours of staff time have gone into this instead of carrying out other investigations. Andrew Caldecott QC described the case last week as a “fundamental issue of freedom of scientific expression.” This case demonstrates the need for another one of the libel reform campaign's key demands - that genuinely peer reviewed scientific publications, and hence discussions about such publications, be subject to qualified privilege and thus ineligible for libel action.

The meeting in Parliament tonight, which will take place at 18.00, will see many more scientists, journalists, writers, bloggers, website hosts and NGOs demonstrate the importance of reforming our libel laws.

The timing of this meeting is designed to impress upon Parliamentarians that a re-drafted and strengthened Defamation Bill should be included in the next Queen's Speech and form a key part of the legislative platform of the next Parliamentary session. Failing to achieve this will kick this vital set of reforms into the long grass and see an excellent opportunity to defend free expression missed - those present will set out how crucial it is that the Bill isn't just improved upon but is brought before Parliament as soon as possible.

*I'll update this post with more info on the meeting tomorrow.*


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