Lord McNally Credit: Keith Edkins
The government has previously "copped out" of legislating for defamation on the internet on the advice that online freedom benefits should not be "reigned in", justice minister Lord McNally said today.

Speaking at a libel reform debate at the Westminster Legal Forum today, however, the minister called on those who understand the area to come forward and advise on whether it is now time to legislate, and how, through the draft defamation bill currently under consultation.

He added that within the consultation document the government is also looking at offering greater protection to secondary publishers online. Addressing the forum he said the current process will give all interested parties a chance to contribute to the final bill.

"I am encouraged and proud of the way we're trying to do this. It's not a case of man in Whitehall knowing best, it is a process which should produce better and more effective legislation.

"We have a period of consultation, a draft bill, pre legislative scrutiny … there's ample opportunity for all interest groups to make a contribution to this legislation and to its final shape. This forum is part of a process, which I greatly welcome, of open discussion, debate and I also welcome constructive analysis.

"This is not the end, you're not looking at the end, it's the end of the beginning."

He told the forum the aim was for the bill to be an Act of Parliament "some time in 2012".

The bill came in for some criticism from Professor Gavin Phillipson of Durham Law School, who argued that the way some provisions in the bill are phrased, such as the defence for responsible journalism, "invites the courts to do what they're already doing in practice".

Phillipson also referred to the impact of proposed changes to legal costs on any libel law, claiming that Conditional Fee Agreements are likely to become more scarce and as a result will make libel law "much worse, rather than better".

With nothing in the bill to stop threats of libel law which are unsound, he added, letters from expensive lawyers will still be enough to silence people. While this may mean libel law is accessible only to the wealthy, this is not a matter for the bill to address but a greater need for affordable legal support, he said.

Nigel Tait, partner at law firm Carter-Ruck also raised the issue of legal costs, calling the bill a "sideshow".

"The fear of costs that is the true chilling effect that the government needs to channel ... It will make libel litigation inaccessible to all but the few. It needs to be looked at again."

Image by Keith Edkins on Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

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