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House of Commons Hansard
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23 March 2010
Volume 508
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8. Whether he plans to take steps to reduce the incidence of libel tourism; and if he will make a statement. [323391]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the recent report on this issue by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs. In parallel, in January I established a working group on the libel laws, and I have today, by written ministerial statement, published that report. As the latter makes clear, action on libel tourism is urgently needed and will be taken as soon as possible. That will be part of a draft libel Bill that we intend to publish in the new Parliament, as well as other more immediate action that we believe, and the working party believes, could be undertaken by changes in the procedural rules and in judicial practice.

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I welcome the Government’s statement this morning, which appears to address a number of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on reform of the libel system. However, on the specific issue of libel tourism, is the Secretary of State aware that only last month the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced support for federal legislation in America to allow US courts to negate the judgments of UK courts in libel actions, on the basis that UK courts do not give sufficient recognition to the need for freedom of expression? Does he accept that that is a matter of profound concern that we need to address as a matter of urgency?

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Yes. The hon. Gentleman properly draws attention to the fact that our defamation laws have developed in rather an unbalanced way. They are now, for example, having a chilling effect on legitimate and important scientific research. We therefore have to bring them back, not into direct symmetry with those of other jurisdictions, but into a better balance.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that we, too, support sensible and well-thought-out reforms of libel law? Why is the statutory instrument before another place being delayed by certain Labour peers? Does he agree that when it comes to capping success fees, we must strike a balance between controlling excessive costs and ensuring that our constituents have the right to access justice to protect their reputations?

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That was two questions, but one answer will suffice.

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Take the easy one.

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I will answer the first one—the difficult one. I am afraid that I have no control over Members of the other place. I do not agree for a moment with the approach that they are taking. We are strongly committed to producing better sense in the no win, no fee arrangements. I am clear that reducing success fees from 100 per cent. to 10 per cent. will not prevent well-founded claims from being made, but it should put off those who are chancers, along with their lawyers, who have in the past obtained both costs and compensation, wholly disproportionate to the alleged defamation that they have suffered.