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15 March 2011

The draft Libel Reform Bill

The government presents its proposals.

By David Allen Green

The government has just published a draft Libel Reform Bill and press notice.

At first glance the content is encouraging. There is a “substantial harm test” and a “Reynolds” type public-interest defence for responsible publications. There will also be curbs on “libel tourism” and an end to jury trials, unless the court orders otherwise. And, at last, there will be a single publication rule, which means that a web page is not held to have been “published” each time it is downloaded.

It does not contain everything demanded by the Libel Reform Campaign. The public-interest defence is more elaborate than hoped for — a simple test of malice would be better than a checklist. There is also no curb on corporations maintaining suits for defamation.

So the draft bill is a promising start to the consultation exercise which is now to commence. The challenge is now to make the actual bill to be presented in the next parliamentary session to be at least as good as this, if not better.

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David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer.