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Libel reform needs to keep writers out of court, not make it easier to win once they're there

The Libel Reform Campaign present a petition with 60,000 signatures to Downing S
The Libel Reform Campaign present a petition with 60,000 signatures to Downing Street

When Ben Goldacre wrote in the Guardian about a man who claimed to South Africans that "multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug" (pdf), he was sued for libel. After fighting in court for 17 months, and spending £535,000 on legal fees, he won the case, and costs were awarded. Three years later, Goldacre has been paid back £365,000. The cost of successfully defending a libel suit – even one over the seemingly open and shut question of whether vitamin pills can cure AIDS – is almost one and a half years of your life and £170,000. Thankfully, the Guardian bankrolled his case. Others aren't so lucky.

The Libel Reform Campaign (a loose coalition comprising Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, amongst others) was created to fight for a change to this situation, because Goldacre's story is not the first, nor the worst.

Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist, was sued by a manufacturer of a heart implant for casting doubt on its efficacy in a medical conference; his case only ended when the company, NMT, went bust, leaving him unable to claim any costs. Simon Singh was taken to court for pointing out that there is no evidence that chiropractors can treat conditions such as colic by spinal manipulation. That case was dropped by the claimants, with Singh thousands of pounds out of pocket.

It isn't only science writers who face punishment under our overbearing libel laws. The novelist Amanda Craig wrote in yesterday's Telegraph of being threatened for libel by an ex-boyfriend who claimed that a fictional character was a libellous representation of him, based, among other things, on the brand of shoes he wore. The website Legal Beagles was served notice by Schillings LLP for writing and hosting discussions about Retail Loss Prevention, a company which sues alleged shoplifters but has been accused of running a "parallel justice system". David Marshall, the in-house lawyer for consumer affairs magazine Which?, says that "corporations are commonly using libel as a form of reputation management, as they might use a press release". He says that frequently, they are hit with solicitor's letters before negative reviews are even published, threatening action when the lawyers cannot possibly know if the content is libellous.

All these cases, and more, lead to libel reform becoming a cause célèbre. At the LRC's rally yesterday, Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain and Dave Gorman all spoke passionately of the need for change, and Labour's Robert Flello MP joined with Conservative David Davis and Liberal Democrat Lord McNally to make the point that the aim of libel reform is shared amongst all three parties. And since it made it into the manifestos of all the parties, the coalition is now passing a defamation bill, aimed at fixing the situation.

Unfortunately, the bill is not fit for purpose. The consensus among libel lawyers is that after it is passed, "nothing will change". All of the cases mentioned above would still exist were the bill to pass. Although it improves the situation in some ways, by introducing a protection for peer-reviewed scientific journals, Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP, argues that it is actually retrograde in others, especially when it comes to free speech online.

But the biggest single problem is that exemplified by Goldacre's case. If you are sued for libel, it doesn't really matter if you win. The cost of defending a claim is so high – 17 months work and enough cash to buy a small house – that only a fool would open themselves up to that risk. The campaign met yesterday to push, not for a way to win more cases, but for a way to prevent needless court cases occurring at all.

Their proposals include a higher hurdle for corporations to clear before they can sue individuals, as well as a much broader public interest defence, and, crucially, an agreed upon system for restitution outside the courts.

All these points are dearly needed. "Libel is used by rich people in a game of poker to get poor people to go 'all in'," said Dave Gorman. Yet it's even worse than that; if you go all in on a game of poker and win, at least you come out with profit. If you are taken to court for libel, you are going to lose either way.

Worse, because there is no requirement for injured parties to attempt to redress claims out of course, it's not enough to offer retractions or corrections. The only sure-fire way not to end up in court over libel is not to write things that people may sue over at all. "What we haven’t heard about are the tens, hundreds, thousands of cases that didn’t go to court because they were silenced," Gorman points out. "It’s these cases we haven’t heard about that are even more important."

Even some claimants don't like the way the law is now. When Luke Cooper sued the Daily Mail for libel - and won - he would have been happy to settle for £5,000 and an apology, but the all-or-nothing nature of the system meant that the Mail forced him to fight all the way to court, which ended up costing them hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If the defamation bill goes through as it stands, Dara Ó Briain argues that there will have been basically no change from 2009, when a group of supporters organised by David Allen Green first met in the basement of the Penderel's Oak pub in Holborn to discuss Simon Singh's defence. But Lord McNally was having none of it. There is at least one thing which will have changed, he told Ó Briain: they are now meeting in a committee room of the House of Commons. Even if the first attempt wasn't successful, the group will hopefully turn British libel law around.

Updated 11:03 on Friday to correct a reference to the Penderel's Oak meeting.