Defamation defences due

WE AT THE Freelance were pleasantly surprised to find we're Establishment enough to be added to the Ministry of Justice's mailing list for the publication of the Defamation Bill on 10 May.

It proposes that defamation claimants would have to demonstrate "serious harm" to their reputation. Section 9 addresses "libel tourism". This practice, of bringing to the London courts cases that wouldn't stand an earthly elsewhere, has already led New York State and US Federal legislatures to rule that UK judgements cannot be enforced there.

The proposal is that actions should only be brought if the court is satisfied that "England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place" There's also qualified privilege for accurately-reported statements made in a press conference anywhere in the world.

The Defamation Bill introduces some new defences: the statement "complained of" being "substantially true"; honest opinion (with some complicated qualifications); and a defence of "responsible publication on matters of public interest." There's also a defence for a "peer-reviewed statement in scientific or academic journal," which was at issue in the high-profile case of science writer Simon Singh vs the British Chiropractic Association.

Section 5 gives "website operators" a defence if they can prove "it was not the operator who posted the statement on the website". Another internet-age clause specifies a time limit for bringing libel actions starting from the date of "first publication". This would overturn the 1849 ruling in Brunswick vs Harmer that each viewing is a new "publication" (see the meeting report at The clock would, however, re-set for "subsequent publications" in a different medium.

The Bill was timetabled for a Second Reading debate on 12 June. Liberal Democrat Justice Minister Lord McNally was reported in the Independent as saying the bill could become law "as soon as next year".

What it doesn't address are the costs of defending libel actions.

Last modified: 06 Jun 2012 - © 2012 contributors
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