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9 November 2011updated 26 Sep 2015 9:46pm

Whatever happened to libel reform?

The need for changing libel law remains urgent.

By David Allen Green

Once upon a time there was a misconceived and illiberal libel case. In fact, there were many; but this one stood out. The claim brought against Dr Simon Singh by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association was so repellent on its facts that via the internet and — towards the end — the mainstream media, it became the main basis for a libel reform campaign which in turn led to all major political parties committing to reform in their manifestos.

Simon Singh did not win that case outright. Instead, the BCA withdrew the case after he appealed successfully to the Court of Appeal on just a preliminary point. By that stage the case had lasted two years and Simon Singh tells me he was exposed to £250,000 of legal costs. The case was still nowhere near a full trial. And such a waste of time and money is not untypical in libel litigation.

But the fundamental problem with libel is not really the costs: in itself libel litigation is not more or less expensive than any other civil litigation. Nor are the delays exceptional: all High Court litigation plods along at a frustratingly slow pace. The problem is the wrongful use to which libel law is put. In essence, libel law has badly lost its way.

Libel is used (and commercially promoted by claimant lawyers) as a tool of “reputation management”. This means that it is deployed so as to get things taken down from websites, or to ensure things are not published in print editions. However, this is a cynical distortion of what libel should be about.

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Instead, libel law should be about the vindication of reputations, and not their “management”. The clumsy but coercive law of libel should not be a mere PR technique. However, it is routinely used almost as if it provides a property right over the words of others. With one lawyer’s letter, content is removed or not published in the first place.

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There are two main reasons why libel has ended up in such an unfortunate state. First, there are problems with the tort itself: it is still actionable without the need to show damages, and the claimant effectively has to show nothing other than publication to bring a case. Accordingly, a libel case is very easy to launch — and thereby threaten to launch.

Second, for decades libel served the useful function of regulating the popular press (whilst maintaining the fiction that the press was not being regulated). Libel litigation was generally a Fleet Street affair, with all the editors and lawyers involved working within a few hundred yards of each other. There were occasional cases where outsiders were caught up in libel — for example, the McLibel two — but for the most part, libel prevented tabloid excesses in practice, even if the substantive law was flawed. But those monochrome days have gone, and libel law is not well placed for dealing with internet publications.

There are currently few high profile libel cases, so libel is less news worthy. The Courts have also modified some of the abuses of libel law and practice; for example, it is now less difficult (though still not straightforward) to strike out cases as “abuses of process”. But there is only so much the courts can do. There needs to be primary legislation. Things which would be in the public interest to publish are not being published, just because of the law of libel.

Is reform any nearer? Slightly. Over the last year or so, the Ministry of Justice have put together a draft Defamation Bill. It contains many sensible modernizing reforms. The draft Bill has been welcomed by a parliamentary joint committee. But there is still a real risk that the government will not include it in the next Queen’s Speech.

So, if you are around London today, do go and join the lobby of parliament for libel reform, from 6pm onwards. And take an interest in the draft Bill, and keep watching the campaign. All the efforts of Simon Singh and many others will be for nothing if, at this late moment, the campaign for libel reform fails.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog closely followed the BCA v Singh case.