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Defamation Bill

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

Prior to the publication of the draft Defamation Bill, my Department carried out informal consultations with a wide range of interested parties. Since the draft Bill was published on 15 March my right hon. Friend Lord McNally has held meetings with a number of these parties to discuss their initial reactions to the draft Bill, and further meetings will take place during the consultation period.

In explaining the difficulties of defamation litigation to my constituents in Erewash, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips, who stated that when defamation cases can be so complex,

“jury trial simply invites expensive interlocutory battles”?

I agree with my hon. Friend and her quotation. Jury trial is rarely used in defamation cases, but it greatly adds to the length and the cost when used, so there is a wide consensus that it is not usually appropriate. It also cuts out the ability of the judge to settle a lot of preliminary points before going on to the full hearing, in a way that cuts down costs and speeds up justice for all parties. So far, there has been a favourable reaction to our proposals that in defamation cases there should be a presumption against jury trial. That has nothing whatever to do with the coalition Government’s commitment to the use of jury trial in criminal cases.

But does the Lord Chancellor accept that one organisation that he will not be able to meet is the organisation of the little man and the little woman, because it does not exist? They are the ones who most often face defamation and malicious or inaccurate comments and reports, as do even right hon. and hon. Members occasionally, difficult as that may be to believe. Do we not need a small claims court for libel cases which could quickly and expeditiously, at a low cost in damages and expenses, deliver remedial justice, apology and correction?

I think we need low-cost, quicker, simpler and more efficient procedures in most of the civil justice system. The statement that I hope to be allowed to make at half-past 3 will take that further in various ways. Defamation has never been eligible for legal aid, but anything that simplifies the process and gets more matters treated as preliminary questions will make it more accessible to the ordinary citizen when his reputation is unfairly tarnished.