A new dawn for libel law

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The Defamation Act comes into force on 1st January 2014. This will mean that England and Wales will have the new libel law the Libel Reform Campaign has been calling for for nearly five years. Congratulations and thank you to the hundreds of scientists, authors, human rights activists, bloggers, consumer champions and citizens who wrote to MPs, came to Parliament, joined in scrutiny of drafts of the new law and put their arguments directly to politicians.

Simon Singh, science writer and broadcaster and co-founder of the Libel Reform Campaign: "The first rally for libel reform was in the spring of 2009 in the Penderel's Oak in Holborn, London. In the four years since then, everyone from bloggers to scientists, from local newspapers to academic journals, from Mumsnet to the BMJ, and from consumer rights groups to human rights groups have presented a compelling case for a fairer libel law, which would allow us to criticise and hold to account the rich and the powerful. At last, the new Defamation Act comes into force, and it is a great tribute to grassroots activism and all the individuals and groups that lobbied for free speech and against the chilling effect of libel."

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science, one of the organisations in the Libel Reform Campaign: "A campaign of small organisations, thousands of individuals and good parliamentarians achieved changes that were denied to citizens and publishers for a century. The weight of mounting injustice which inhibited scientists from talking freely about their society, about what to believe and why, shaped the Defamation Act. There is much to be proud of here, not least the courage of so many scientists and academics who spoke up and made politicians listen. The Act is a major step to reforming our libel laws. Restrictions on trivial and vexatious claims, a new public interest defence, protection for peer reviewed papers and limitations on corporations ability to sue for libel will help scientists and science publishers everywhere to decide to publish based on "is it true?" rather than "will they sue?" A lot will depend on how the courts apply the new law. We will keep it under review to see that the law does give scientists the increased confidence to publish that it promises."

Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN, one of the organisations in the Libel Reform Campaign: "England and Wales now have a law fit for the 21st Century, but the battle's not yet over. It's essential that Northern Ireland now adopts the Act. Otherwise the new law could be undermined and cases could be heard in Belfast under the old legislation."

BBC News Defamation Act 2013 aims to improve libel laws
Guardian Libel: new Defamation Act will reverse 'chilling effect', ministers claim
The Times Defamation Act strengthens public interest defence

Read the Libel Reform Campaign's initial analysis of the Act here (PDF).

When the Defamation Act was given Royal Assent in April 2013, politicians and campaign supporters told us their reactions:

Minister for Justice Lord McNally:
“I know that the Act does not contain absolutely everything that the Libel Reform Campaign wanted. However, I do believe that it contains a series of measures which will provide valuable support for freedom of expression. Whilst enactment is a very significant step down the road it is of course not the end of the process. My determination to ensure that the new legislation is effective extends to a desire to see that the section 5 regulations are passed through Parliament successfully; and that the new costs protection regime for defamation and privacy cases and other necessary changes to the Civil Procedure Rules are introduced to ensure that people with limited resources are not put at a disadvantage and that cases can be resolved as quickly and cheaply as possible. Work is being taken forward on these aspects to ensure that we can commence the Defamation Act 2013 before the end of this year.” You can read Lord McNally's full statement here (PDF).

Lord Lester of Herne Hill:
“I hope and believe that we have achieved balanced reforms that may become models across the common law world. That is why this event is a well-deserved celebration in which I am privileged to take part.”

Dr Julian Huppert MP for Cambridge: “This Act delivers huge reforms to the libel laws in the UK, giving us all protection to publish freely without fear of court action for defamation. It is particularly relevant to doctors, researchers, journalists and scientists allowing them to report their findings without fear of costly legal action; this is a major step forward. I am incredibly proud to be a member of the party which has successfully fought to get the Defamation Act passed.”

Sadiq Khan MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice: “If there was to be a blueprint for how civic society in this country can contribute in a positive and constructive manner to how Parliament decides on the laws of the land, then the history of the Defamation Act 2013 would surely be it. Because of the work of your campaign, politicians sat up and listened. The ground work was done and the three main parties were all persuaded of the need to modernise our outdated defamation laws. So, while the final legislation might not be 100% perfect, there’s bits we might all have liked to have seen improved, the improvement that will occur to our defamation laws is in large part down to the work of the Libel Reform Campaign. Given that defamation bills really do come round less often than blue moons, for many of you at tonight’s celebration this will have been your only chance to influence the law in this area! I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight, so I hope you have a great evening, and take pride in the role you’ve played in dragging our defamation laws into the 21st century. Well done!”

Dr Evan Harris, Libel Reform Campaign Parliamentary adviser: “There is no doubt that this legislation is a step forward in the protection of free speech, but its impact will have to be kept under review to see whether it actually achieves what is intended. New or improved defences are of little benefit if publishers of modest means cannot meet the cost of defending their words, so access to justice remains a key and unresolved issue.”

Justine Roberts, CEO and co-founder of parenting forum Mumsnet: “As a long-time member of the Libel Reform Campaign, Mumsnet warmly welcomes the passing of the Defamation Act. It's not perfect, and of course we don't yet have the full detail on how the regulations will deal with publication on the internet; we're hoping those will be proportionate and sensible, and far-sighted enough to cope with the speed at which online communications are developing. But we applaud the hard work of everyone involved, and are very happy to have been a part of this much-needed reform.”

Charmian Gooch, Director, Global Witness: “For too long, those wishing to publish matters of vital public interest have been faced with a notoriously unfriendly legal landscape weighted towards aggressive claimant lawyers and vested interests. The impact of this is difficult to overstate – quite simply it has stifled public debate. The Defamation Act is a long-overdue step in the right direction. What’s needed now is to build on this momentum and make sure that charities and others are not crushed by the expense of defending claims and that it is easier to strike out claims early.”

Kate Briscoe, Founder, Legal Beagles: “On the day the Defamation Act was finally passed, after an agonising last minute scare, I was finally able to feel safe and positive about the responsibility of running such a potentially controversial website as Legal Beagles. We criticise a LOT of major companies for poor treatment of consumers. We expose wrong doing and we need to be able to write without 'looking over our shoulder' in fear of the next threat. The Defamation Act provides the beginning of a fairer playing field for consumer websites such as Legal Beagles. The result is quite simply a stunning victory for free speech and fairness in the UK.”

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, consultant cardiologist and defendant in NMT Medical v Wilmshurst: “I hope that the Defamation Act will make it easier for scientists, doctors and others to openly discuss concerns of public interest without being sued for libel, but I fear that so long as the legal process in England remains unbelievably expensive, those with the most money will continue to silence ordinary people with limited resources who wish to raise concerns. The astronomical costs of defamation actions are doubly unjust because they effectively deny ordinary individuals with limited resources the right to protect their reputations when wealthy individuals or organisations set out to damage them. Only when the costs of defamation actions are brought down, so that all citizens can both defend their views and defend their reputations will the laws be just.”

Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society of Editors: “The Libel Reform Campaign was an alliance of disparate groups that shared a common goal that libel laws in the UK born of the Victorian times need to be made fit for purpose in a fast moving, high tech 21st century. The reforms achieved are a huge start that will aid freedom of expression for scientists, academics, authors, the media and the public while still protecting reputations. But the improvements must be seen as work in progress in areas where powerful vested interests have blocked change. Pressure must be maintained to implement the reforms across the UK, especially in Northern Ireland which is set to become the new favoured resort for libel tourism.”

Richard Lloyd, Executive Director, Which?: "The Defamation Act is a big step towards protecting freedom of speech while ensuring the law is fit for purpose for public interest publication in the digital age. It is a significant and important victory that the Act introduces a proper statutory public interest defence based on the reasonable belief of the publisher. Importantly, the new law should also reduce the number of libel threats used purely for everyday reputation management by requiring companies to show actual or likely serious financial loss as part of any claim. However, the Government's job is not quite done and care must be taken in drafting the regulations for website operators to ensure a sensible and proportionate balance is achieved between freedom of expression and reputation online."

Hardeep Singh, freelance journalist and defendant in His Holiness v Singh: "The Libel Reform Campaign has made history by challenging the status quo. It has been a pleasure to be part of the lobby for change and celebrate this monumental success. Taking on a wealthy foreigner in the libel courts and facing ruin is an emotional roller coaster ride, the community of libertarians who stood by me acted like a soothing balm through the tumult of four years in the courts. I consider them all friends for life. I'd like to extend my congratulations to Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and English Pen, as well as all of those who supported me throughout my journey taking on 'His Holiness'. The Defamation Act will only make it fairer for others who want to speak out on matters of public interest and hold those in power accountable. This is a milestone which will be remembered by future generations to come."

Amanda Craig, novelist: "When I had my novel A Vicious Circle accused of libelling David Sexton, a critic and ex-boyfriend from university of fifteen years before, I could not believe anyone could possibly take it seriously. Anyone who has ever been accused of libel might understand the nightmare I was plunged into.”

Jake Arnott, novelist: “In 2006 I was sued for libel over my novel Johnny Come Home. One of the minor characters in the book was a record producer who preyed on teenage boys and I had accidentally given him the same name as someone who had worked in the music industry. There was never any intention on my part to defame this person but intention or the lack of it is not an issue in libel law as it stands. Apart from the name, the identification of this person with my character was tenuous (he was a singer, not a producer and it turned out it wasn’t even his real name at all but a stage name) but the burden of proof is heavily weighed against the defendant in British libel law. I was personally liable, not my publisher. I had to pay £25,000. The way things are individual writers are extremely vulnerable. I feel no grudge against the plaintive in this case (though I do wish we might have settled the matter in a more amicable manner) but I do resent the system. Two thirds of the substantial sum I had to pay were legal costs.”

Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ's ethics committee: "This is an important law for journalists and all citizens. Our previous libel laws suited only the rich and powerful and hampered investigative journalism and free speech. The changes to the law are a step in the right direction and are important improvements."