Whatever happened to libel reform?

The need for changing libel law remains urgent.

Once upon a time there was a misconceived and illiberal libel case. In fact, there were many; but this one stood out. The claim brought against Dr Simon Singh by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association was so repellent on its facts that via the internet and -- towards the end -- the mainstream media, it became the main basis for a libel reform campaign which in turn led to all major political parties committing to reform in their manifestos.

Simon Singh did not win that case outright. Instead, the BCA withdrew the case after he appealed successfully to the Court of Appeal on just a preliminary point. By that stage the case had lasted two years and Simon Singh tells me he was exposed to £250,000 of legal costs. The case was still nowhere near a full trial. And such a waste of time and money is not untypical in libel litigation.

But the fundamental problem with libel is not really the costs: in itself libel litigation is not more or less expensive than any other civil litigation. Nor are the delays exceptional: all High Court litigation plods along at a frustratingly slow pace. The problem is the wrongful use to which libel law is put. In essence, libel law has badly lost its way.

Libel is used (and commercially promoted by claimant lawyers) as a tool of "reputation management". This means that it is deployed so as to get things taken down from websites, or to ensure things are not published in print editions. However, this is a cynical distortion of what libel should be about.

Instead, libel law should be about the vindication of reputations, and not their "management". The clumsy but coercive law of libel should not be a mere PR technique. However, it is routinely used almost as if it provides a property right over the words of others. With one lawyer's letter, content is removed or not published in the first place.

There are two main reasons why libel has ended up in such an unfortunate state. First, there are problems with the tort itself: it is still actionable without the need to show damages, and the claimant effectively has to show nothing other than publication to bring a case. Accordingly, a libel case is very easy to launch -- and thereby threaten to launch.

Second, for decades libel served the useful function of regulating the popular press (whilst maintaining the fiction that the press was not being regulated). Libel litigation was generally a Fleet Street affair, with all the editors and lawyers involved working within a few hundred yards of each other. There were occasional cases where outsiders were caught up in libel -- for example, the McLibel two -- but for the most part, libel prevented tabloid excesses in practice, even if the substantive law was flawed. But those monochrome days have gone, and libel law is not well placed for dealing with internet publications.

There are currently few high profile libel cases, so libel is less news worthy. The Courts have also modified some of the abuses of libel law and practice; for example, it is now less difficult (though still not straightforward) to strike out cases as "abuses of process". But there is only so much the courts can do. There needs to be primary legislation. Things which would be in the public interest to publish are not being published, just because of the law of libel.

Is reform any nearer? Slightly. Over the last year or so, the Ministry of Justice have put together a draft Defamation Bill. It contains many sensible modernizing reforms. The draft Bill has been welcomed by a parliamentary joint committee. But there is still a real risk that the government will not include it in the next Queen's Speech.

So, if you are around London today, do go and join the lobby of parliament for libel reform, from 6pm onwards. And take an interest in the draft Bill, and keep watching the campaign. All the efforts of Simon Singh and many others will be for nothing if, at this late moment, the campaign for libel reform fails.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog closely followed the BCA v Singh case.

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.)

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity