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Government unveils draft for libel law reforms

Draft would end juries in libel trials, further protecting defendants and whilst aiming to reduce '

The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has published a draft bill presenting major changes to Britain's libel laws, aimed at protecting free speech and halting "libel tourism" from abroad.

The bill includes a strengthened public interest defence aimed at better protecting defendants in libel trials. Claimants to these trials will now be required to show evidence that they have been substantially harmed before they can take matters to court.

This draft would replaced the current common law defence of justification with a new statutory defence of truth, whilst a statutory defence of honest opinion is set to substitute the current common law defence of fair and honest comment.

The reforms also aim to put an end to 'libel tourism', making it harder for overseas claims with little connection to the UK to be judged by a English or Welsh court. The latter will have to be convinced England and Wales are "clearly" the best place to take action.

Another proposed change is ending the use of juries in libel trials, save in exceptional circumstances. This will reduce costs and speed up court cases.

"The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society", said Clarke, explaining that the bill's aim was to "ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence". The government is still looking into various areas not covered by the bill, including the need for a greater protection to second hand publishers, such as internet operators.

The Libel Reform Campaign approved of this new bill. They said, however, that government needs to go further in areas such as the public interest defence. It also argues that the new bill should put an end to companies suing for libel, a provision which the government has so far refused to include.