As 2015 draws to a close, the Libel Reform Campaign is celebrating its successes and also looking ahead to new challenges.
The Defamation Act 2013 is making a positive impact and the law is working just as Parliament intended. Recent judgments concerning the ‘serious harm’ test show that trivial claims are being discouraged. Judges have affirmed the politicians’ intent that claimants have to prove they had been harmed or prove that harm will result in the future. This is not an insurmountable hurdle for those with a genuine case, but lawyers tell us that it has resulted in fewer trivial claims being launched. We campaigned hard for this measure and we’re delighted it is making a difference.
Libel tourism is being discouraged too. In March, a claim was brought to the High Court in London by a Serbian citizen, against another Serbian citizen, over an article written in a Serbian newspaper... in Serbian. But just last month, Mr Justice Tugendhat threw out the claim under section 9 of the Defamation Act. Before the Act, these cases were routinely allowed in the High Court. Now it looks as if they’re on the wane.
These developments are exactly what we had hoped for and mean we have a very strong hand as we take our campaign to Northern Ireland and Scotland, where the law has yet to be reformed.
In Scotland, calls for reform have been increasing. In November, our colleagues at Scottish PEN published a letter co-signed by dozens of prominent Scottish writers including Ian Rankin, urging an update to the law: ‘A modern and open nation like Scotland deserves a defamation law that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.’ The same month, The Herald, the world’s longest running national newspaper, launched its own campaign to reform the defamation laws in Scotland.
The Scottish Law Commission has already promised to review the law. Lord Pentland, chair of the commission, is leading the review personally and has welcomed the public support for and interest in reform. A major project for the Libel Reform Campaign in 2016 will be to make a submission to the Commission’s consultation and to build political awareness of this issue. We will need your support to make this happen.
There is good news in Northern Ireland too. The Law Commission ran a consultation on defamation in February, but its response was delayed when the commission itself was abolished as a cost-cutting measure. However, we have heard that the Stormont Executive will finally be publishing the commission’s report, and we expect a draft Bill to be included, too. In the New Year we’ll be continuing our campaign to ensure that Stormont Assembly members debate the issue and keep the process of reform moving.
The Libel Reform Campaign cannot work without the activism of our supporters. Please continue boosting the #LibelReform signal on social media. Thank you for your support.
This year we’ve seen why libel reform simply has to keep going. The Scientology film Going Clear was dropped from Sky Atlantic after lawyers feared that the Church of Scientology would be able to sue – not under the new legislation in England and Wales, but under the unreformed law in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We still have a job to do to ensure that public interest journalism and free debate can take place everywhere. Reform is now firmly on the agenda, but we need your help to make it a reality. The Defamation Act came into force in January 2014, but it only applies to England and Wales.
Northern Ireland and Scotland retain their own laws of defamation, meaning that residents have fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens elsewhere in the UK. It also means that anyone who publishes across the UK (which, in the age of the internet, applies to almost everybody) is at risk of being sued in Belfast or Edinburgh, even if what they have written is protected by the new law in England and Wales.
The Libel Reform Campaign has now created grassroots advisory councils in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, helping to lead the fight for reform and bring vital local support to the campaign. Through our combined efforts we’ve ensured that libel reform is now within reach: in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the Green Party have adopted libel reform as party policy and we’re within weeks of seeing the publication of a consultation on libel reform that will form the basis of a bill.
In Scotland we have succeeded in persuading the Scottish Law Commission to include libel reform on its Ninth Programme of Reform – in its recent report, the Commission noted the progress being made in Northern Ireland as a reason to review the law in Scotland, and cited the ‘substantial level of support’ for reform.
The Libel Reform Campaign will be working tirelessly in 2015 to keep reform on the political agenda. We’ll be running more public events, surveys and keeping up the pressure on politicians and civil servants to ensure this issue is not forgotten. To do this effectively we need your support.
The Defamation Bill became the Defamation Act 2013 last month. It’s time to celebrate its successes and the campaigning effort.
Can you join us downstairs at the Penderel’s Oak pub in Holborn, London WC1V 7HP on Thursday 16th May from 6.30pm?
This will be almost exactly four years since David Allen Green assembled scientists, bloggers, skeptics, comedians and authors at Penderel’s Oak to discuss Simon Singh’s case and what could be done. That gathering started the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign which led to the Libel Reform Campaign. Many of the people who addressed that original meeting will be there again on Thursday 16th May to reflect on all that’s been achieved and to raise a glass to libel reform. We hope you can join us too.
We will be quite restricted on numbers downstairs so entry will be by registration list. Please let us know as soon as possible if you intend to come. If the demand is high enough we will take over the upstairs of the Penderel’s Oak too and the Red Lion across the road. The speakers will get around to everybody on the night.
The Libel Reform Campaign will also be holding a bigger, broader event on the new law and a drinks party on 12th June... More on that very soon.
As we prepare for the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 April, another libel case has emerged that demonstrates the urgent need for libel reform.
The Libel Reform Campaign is urging its supporters to support a legal fighting fund for Lesley Kemp.Lesley is a professional transcriber living in Milton Keynes. In August last year she took on some work for a film production company based overseas. After the late payment of an invoice for just £146, and the deduction of a £25 fee for the international bank transfer, Lesley tweeted her frustration. When the account was finally paid in full, she followed up with a positive tweet noting that fact.
Lesley is now being sued by the director of the production company! The claimant's solicitors are asking for damages, a permanent injunction and legal costs.
These proceedings have had a serious impact on Lesley’s well-being. She writes:
I am unable to afford legal representation and I’m ineligible for legal aid. The costs and other expenses associated with the legal process are prohibitive to me. I am almost 56 years of age, close to retirement but it looks very likely that this action ... will result in the loss of my home and business and pretty much destroy my life.
Thankfully, Robert Dougans of legal firm Bryan Cave and barrister Jonathan Price have just agreed to represent Lesley on a no-win, no-fee basis. However, she must still pay court fees, other expenses, and an interim payment of costs to be able to take the case to trial. A fighting fund for Lesley Kemp as been set up at http://www.kapipal.com/lesley-kemp. A few supporters of the Libel Reform Campaign have already donated, but we need more people to chip-in to help her defend the case. We only need to raise about £800 to pay the fees ordered by the court. Another £1,000 will be needed to take the case to trial.
These disproportionate libel threats are precisely the kind of actions that the Libel Reform Campaign hopes will be resolved by the Defamation Bill. The toughened defences of serious harm and truth in the Bill would discourage such claims in the future.
However, the Defamation Bill is not yet law. The new defences we have campaigned for cannot help Lesley. Please visit http://www.kapipal.com/lesley-kemp today and make a small donation to Lesley’s fighting fund.