Libel litigation is not fit for purpose

A four year ordeal comes to an end.

Today the Court of Appeal finally brought to an end the misconceived and illiberal case brought against Labour bloggers John Gray and Alex Hilton. There is nowhere else for the claimant to go with this case in the United Kingdom. Her only way forward is to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, but then her case will then be against the UK, and not these two Labour bloggers.

In one distorted way, this final defeat perhaps shows libel law is somehow working. That is certainly how apologists for the current mess which is English libel law would put it: the claimant's case was struck out by the courts applying English substantive and procedural case law, thereby no legal change is needed and so English libel law is working.

However, this is simply not correct. Last year, the High Court held correctly that the libel claim had no merit and struck the claim out as an abuse of process. But this was after three years of draining litigation which left the defendants facing the real possibility of bankruptcy. It also took the intervention of my friend Robert Dougans, with pro bono help from the likes of me and other veterans of the British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh case. Had it not been for our involvement, the case could well have gone to full jury trial. It then could have gone to a full Court of Appeal, and so on. There could have been years more of this case. And remember, this was always a case with no merit whatsoever.

English libel law remains unfit for purpose. The courts quaintly presume any alleged libel has caused damage and that it is false. The claimant has very little to show before a claim can be launched or even threatened. It is then for the defendant to either prove the alleged libel is not a libel, or that it is false or honest opinion, or that it is an abuse of process as no damage has actually been caused. The claimant can just sit back whilst the defendant incurs immense costs and negotiates evidential problems. There also remains no useful public interest defence for political, science, or other bloggers and journalist to rely on. Libel law, both in substantive and procedural terms, is in an awful state.

There is the possibility that the government will publish a draft libel reform bill later this month. One hopes it is a sensible bill, which will make it more difficult for bad libel claims to be threatened and far easier for them to be got rid of when they are brought. However, the government may instead suggest mere tinkering. We have to wait and see.

But it must be emphasised: Alex Hilton and John Gray did nothing wrong, and still they had four years of genuine worry and inconvenience. It could have been any blogger or commenter in their place. The case against them has taken four years to bring to today's ultimate end. This cannot be right. To allude to a famous election poster: Libel isn't working.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer. He is a supporter of the Libel Reform Campaign.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.