9 May 2012

Queen announces major libel reform bill

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Thanks largely to Index on Censorship's libel reform campaign, the government will introduce a law "to protect freedom of speech and reform the law of defamation" in the next parliament.

Announced today in the Queen's speech, which sets out the government's legislative plans for the next year, the bill is intended to abolish costly jury trials, curb online defamation through a new notice and takedown procedure, reduce "libel tourism" and protect responsible journalism, say news reports.

Claimants will have to show they have suffered "serious harm" before suing for defamation. According to the BBC, currently, a person suing for defamation does not have to prove the words they are complaining about have caused them actual damage; it is enough for the courts that they might have.

The bill will also try to restrict libel tourism. As it stands, foreign claimants can bring cases against foreign defendants to English courts even if the connection with England is tenuous.

"The bill will re-balance the law to ensure that people who have been defamed are able to protect their reputation, but that free speech and freedom of expression are not unjustifiably impeded by actual or threatened libel proceedings," the Ministry of Justice told reporters.

"It will ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism."

"This will be the first wholesale attempt at reform since 1843 and an amazing achievement for the campaign and its 60,000 supporters," said Index on Censorship. Index, English PEN and Sense About Science have been calling for legislation to reform the libel laws since December 2009 through their Libel Reform Campaign.

Sense About Science managing director Tracey Brown said, "This opens the way to developing a law guided by public interest not powerful interests."

Science writer Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning the evidence on which it based treatment of asthma, welcomed the news.

"I continue to be contacted by journalists, scientists and others who are being silenced by libel threats or libel claims," said Simon. "I hope that the government will now move rapidly to bring forward a bill that protects those writing about serious matters in the public interest."

Over the coming months, the Libel Reform Campaign says it will work on the details of the bill, such as fighting for a public interest defence "so people can defend themselves unless the claimant can show they have been malicious or reckless."

How you can help

Sign the Libel Reform Campaign petition to keep the pressure on and let the government know there is real demand for reform.

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