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14 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

Libel after Eady

Eady stepping down as top libel judge does not affect the need for libel reform

By David Allen Green

From 1 October 2010, Sir David Eady will no longer be the senior libel and privacy judge at the High Court (also see report here). He will still be able to hear libel and privacy trials — he is not retiring outright — but he will no longer pick and choose which media law cases go before him.

This is welcome news; but not because Mr Justice Eady is particuarly culpable as a judge. In fact, Sir David Eady is generally no worse and no better than any other judge applying the dysfunctional English law of libel. He has given almost as many heartening liberal defamation judgments as dreadfully illiberal judgments. And his contribution to the development of privacy law is commendable: the mainstream media is now less likely to intrude upon people’s personal space and misuse private information just because of his rulings.

It is instead welcome news because it de-personalises a complex problem. The problems with libel law are to do with the substance of the law and the way it is litigated and threatened, and not because of any particular judge. To deride Mr Justice Eady — or to sneer at any particular law firm — is not the same as urging libel reform.

Libel reform is required mainly because the law wrongly elevates a private right to reputation above the public interest in free discussions on matters of vital public interest. For example, important debates about public health and the efficacy of certain medical treatments remain inhibited by the worry of libel threats. And not all writers have the sheer grit and commitment (and personal resources) of a Simon Singh.

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Judges come and go; and (sadly) there will never be a shortage of lawyers who will send aggressive letters to close down contributions to public debates as long as the law allows them to do so. The replacement of Mr Justice Eady as the High Court’s senior libel judge makes no real difference to the campaign for libel reform.

The awful — indeed dispreputable — state of English libel law will still be there the morning after he steps down.

 

David Allen Green blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy matters. He is a City media lawyer and was shortlisted for the George Orwell blogging prize for his Jack of Kent blog.