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20 January 2010

Libel reform: the way forward

Straw's plan to cap success fees is a good start

By George Eaton

Jack Straw’s announcement of plans to cut the amount lawyers can charge in “no win, no fee” cases by 90 per cent is welcome and long overdue.

It was in an interview with Jason Cowley for the NS that Straw first promised to introduce a “radically reduced cap” on grossly inflated success fees. Our leader in that issue called for a 10 per cent cap on fees that at present can reach 100 per cent of costs, a demand that the Justice Secretary has now matched. Straw is determined to leave office with a reputation as a reforming secretary of state, and the changes are set to be made through secondary legislation in April or May.

Introduced in 1995, the “no win no fee” system was created with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times greater than the European average.

But while reducing the cost of cases is a necessary reform, it is not the only amendment our libel laws need. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win, but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start. Any future government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of urgency.

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It should also provide publishers with a stronger public-interest defence against legal action; prevent foreigners from suing in the British courts unless they can demonstrate that they have suffered real harm in this country; and end cash damages in all but the most severe cases.

Labour’s record on civil liberties is not a proud one, but on libel it has, belatedly, rediscovered some of the radicalism that attracted so many in 1997. Straw deserves credit for the abolition of sedition and criminal libel last year and for his latest proposals. But bolder action is now needed. Britain’s shameful libel laws require nothing less.

 

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