JACK STRAW is preparing to draw up proposals for wholesale reform of England’s libel laws, after a long-running Sunday Times campaign.
The justice secretary says the large legal fees involved in defamation cases in English courts are jeopardising freedom of speech, potentially curbing vital debate by scientists, academics and journalists.
The huge payouts awarded to individuals who successfully claim their reputation has been damaged has made London the libel capital of the world.
Last night, Straw warned that the bonanza for lawyers and claimants was having a “chilling” effect and pledged radical changes. “It is very important that citizens are able to take action for defamation if they are seriously defamed. But no-win, no-fee arrangements have got out of hand. The system has become unbalanced,” he said.
Wealthy individuals from all over the world are heading to London’s High Court to bring libel cases because England’s draconian libel laws make it easier to win than in jurisdictions such as America, which put greater emphasis on freedom of speech. Courts are accepting cases with flimsy connections to Britain.
American newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe have warned that they may be forced to stop selling copies in the UK because of the risk of being sued.
In one case, a wealthy Saudi businessman successfully sued an American academic whose book on funding terrorism sold just 23 copies in Britain over the internet. He was awarded £130,000 damages and costs by London courts.
In another case, a British consultant cardiologist, Dr Peter Wilmshurst, is being sued by an American company, NMT Medical, for questioning the effectiveness of a new heart implant device. Wilmshurst raised his criticism at an American conference and his comments were posted on a US website, but he is being pursued at the High Court because a number of cardiologists read the article in Britain.
In measures that are expected to win cross-party support, Straw believes individuals and media groups must have a clearer right to express their views, as in other countries.
“A free press can’t operate or be effective unless it can offer readers comment as well as news. What concerns me is that the current arrangements are being used by big corporations to restrict fair comment, not always by journalists but also by academics,” he said.
He also wants to see new restrictions on no-win, no-fee arrangements and curbs on legal fees involved in fighting cases. In many cases, lawyers who win libel cases make 10 times the money their clients are awarded. He cited one case in which a regional newspaper was forced to pay damages of £5,000 to a plaintiff but £50,000 to the plaintiff’s lawyer.
“The very high levels of remuneration for defamation lawyers in Britain seem to be incentivising libel tourism,” he said.
Straw has been impressed by a report from Index on Censorship, the free-speech body, and English PEN, a charity that supports persecuted writers. The groups jointly conducted a year-long inquiry into the issue. Their report warns that current laws risk turning the country into a “global pariah”; its recommendations include capping libel damages at £10,000 and making an apology the chief remedy; shifting the burden of proof so that claimants have to demonstrate damage; and preventing cases from being heard in London unless at least 10% of the offending publication’s circulation is in the UK.
The proposed changes are still under discussion, but Straw is keen to begin the process, which could involve a new libel bill, as soon as possible.
Libel lawyers agree that reform is necessary but some argue that the threat of being sued encourages the media to report accurately. Paul Tweed, an Irish libel lawyer who has acted in England and Ireland for US celebrities including the singers Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, said: “I believe the UK broadsheets are among the finest and most credible in the world because of libel laws which keep a check on what is published.”
He claimed that most wealthy individuals who bring libel cases are not motivated by money: “The Hollywood stars I act for are not seeking damages. What they want is the record set straight, fast, because if it is not, it will be pumped round the internet.”
Among those who have recently attacked the libel laws are the former director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, and the scientist Richard Dawkins, who warned that the laws make scientists wary of challenging bogus claims about health products.
The laws help despots
War criminals and despots are using England’s draconian libel and privacy laws to try to gag their critics. In one case, Human Rights Watch, a campaigning charity, was forced to change a report about the genocide in Rwanda after a man it accused of helping to transport a group of Tutsis to their deaths threatened to sue in English courts.
In another case, Global Witness, an environmental and human rights pressure group, was threatened with an injunction by Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, son of the president of Congo-Brazzaville, after it published documents that suggested he had bought more than $250,000 (£151,000) of designer clothes and other luxury goods using a credit card paid for by public funds. The injunction was not granted but Global Witness had to pay £50,000 in legal costs.