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House of Commons Hansard
23 March 2010
Volume 508
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I am publishing today the Government’s views on reform of the law on libel in the light of the conclusions of the libel working group established by the Ministry of Justice; the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in its recent report on its inquiry on “Press Standards, Privacy and Libel”; and, the responses to our recent consultation paper “Defamation and the internet: the multiple publication rule”.

As I announced in a written ministerial statement on 27 January 2010, Official Report column 58 WS, the libel working group was set up in response to concerns about the possibility that our libel laws were having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Members of the working group reflected a range of interests and expertise, including organisations campaigning for free speech, claimant and defendant lawyers, media organisations, newspaper editors, and the academic and scientific communities.

The working group’s terms of reference were

“to consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions”.

The group focused on identifying key priorities relating to libel law in England and Wales, but did not consider issues relating to costs in defamation proceedings, where work is already under way.

The Government have taken a number of steps to control costs in defamation-related proceedings, ensuring that, where after-the-event insurance is taken out, defendants are notified as early as possible, and given the opportunity to reach a settlement without being liable for the insurance premiums. Defamation proceedings are now part of a mandatory costs budgeting pilot, with judges scrutinising costs as cases progress to ensure that they are proportionate and within the agreed budget. In addition, the Government are seeking to reduce the maximum “success fee” in conditional fee agreements in defamation-related proceedings to 10 per cent. as an interim measure so that the specific concerns around high costs in these cases can be addressed as quickly as possible.

The working group’s report was submitted to me last week, and will be published on the Ministry of Justice website today, together with the Government’s response to the consultation on the multiple publication rule, and copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I would like to express my gratitude to all the members of the working group for contributing their knowledge and expertise and for the considerable amount of time and effort that they have put into considering these important issues and producing their analysis and options for reform within such a tight timetable.

On the basis of all the views that have been submitted, the Government are convinced that reform of the law on libel is needed, and that action should be taken on a number of aspects of the current law and procedures. We will take steps to implement the necessary changes on as timely a basis as possible. However, in some instances primary legislation may be necessary. Where this is the case, we propose to develop our thinking further and come forward with detailed proposals to include a draft Bill for introduction as soon as parliamentary time allows in the new Parliament.

In particular we will be considering actively:

a single publication rule: The introduction of a single publication rule whereby a defamation claim will have to be brought within one year from the date of the original publication, subject to judicial discretion to extend this period as necessary.

a new statutory defence: Consideration of whether a statutory defence relating to the public interest and responsible journalism can be developed in a way which reconciles the competing interests in relation to reputation and the right to freedom of expression.

libel tourism: Procedural changes as proposed by the libel working group to address problems relating to the issue of “libel tourism”. These focus on a tightening, and so a more rigorous application, of the rules and practice in relation to service of defamation claims out of England and Wales where the court’s permission is required, in order to head off inappropriate claims at the earliest possible stage. We believe that the working group’s proposals in this area will provide effective practical benefits, and intend to raise them with the Civil Procedure Rule Committee and encourage the Committee to consider them as soon as possible.

other procedural issues that have been raised in the libel working group report and elsewhere, for example relating to changes to procedures to strengthen the defamation protocol governing pre-action behaviour and to resolve difficulties relating to decisions on the meaning of allegedly defamatory material at an early stage.

The Government believe that the programme of work that they intend to take forward represents an effective and practical way to ensure that our libel laws achieve a fair and just balance which enables people to protect their reputations against defamatory allegations without having a harmful effect on freedom of expression.