One of the few positive developments in recent months has been Jack Straw’s belated support for libel reform.
In a plan first trailed to the NS, the Justice Secretary promised to reduce lawyers’ success fees from a maximum of 100 per cent to 10 per cent. Significantly, he confirmed that the measure could be introduced before the election through secondary legislation.
Action in this area is long overdue. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times (yes, you read that right) greater than the European average.
But last night Straw’s plan was thrown into doubt after Labour MPs blocked the measure at committee stage. The guilty men were Tom Watson, Peter Kilfoyle, Chris Mullin and Jim Sheridan. The Tory MP Julie Kirkbride also voted against the passage of the law.
Coincidentally, Watson recently received “substantial damages” after suing the Sun over claims that he was involved in the McBride email smears scandal. He was represented by the law firm Carter-Ruck, which is lobbying fiercely against libel reform.
The Labour rebellion means that the measure must now return to the Commons after the Easter recess. It can be passed without a vote, but if any MP objects it will return to the House the next day for a full parliamentary vote.
The “no win, no fee system” was created in 1995 with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves and has discouraged original stories and investigative journalism.
It will be a scandal if this opportunity for reform is missed.