A victory for scientific inquiry

Simon Singh wins libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association.

I've just heard the fantastic news that Simon Singh has won his libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association. He now has the right to rely on the defence of fair comment.

Singh, who has contributed to the NS in the past, was sued by the BCA after he wrote a piece for the Guardian describing the association's claim that spinal manipulation could be used to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding conditions as "bogus".

Remarkably, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the comments were factual, not opinion -- meaning Singh could not use the defence of fair comment.

Eady also ruled that the use of the word "bogus" implied not merely that the BCA supported ineffective treatments, but that it had been deliberately deceptive.

This left Singh with the Sisyphean task of proving a point he'd never intended to make: that the BCA had been consciously dishonest.

But today, the Appeal Court (consisting of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justice Sedley) ruled that Eady had "erred in his approach", and granted Singh the right to use the defence of fair comment in the primary lawsuit. He now has a far better chance of winning the case.

But as the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris pointed out today, it is absurd that Singh has had to spend £200,000 and two years of his life just to reach this point. The need to reform Britain's draconian libel laws, which discourage free inquiry and punish original journalism, remains as urgent as ever.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.