Lord Lester
Campaigns for reform of libel legislation in the UK have been given a boost today with the publication of a Private Member's Defamation Bill by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Lester.

The bill, which had its first reading in parliament yesterday, addresses the costliness of libel litigation and the need for an up-to-date libel law in light of online publishing.

According to a press statement on behalf of Lord Lester, the bill is designed to:
  • Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest;
  • Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as 'truth' and 'honest opinion';
  • Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters;
  • Protect those reporting on proceedings in parliament and other issues of public concern;
  • Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss;
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.
"The time is over-ripe for parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech. No government or parliament has conducted a thorough and comprehensive review. My bill provides the opportunity to do so and to modernise the law in step with the technological revolution. It creates a framework of principles rather than a rigid and inflexible code, and it seeks a fair balance between reputation and public information on matters of public interest," says Lord Lester, who was heavily involved in the introduction of the Human Rights Act and the use of the European Human Rights Convention in British courts, in the press statement.

The bill calls for similar reforms to those put forward in Index on Censorship and English PEN's 'Free Speech is Not For Sale' report, which made 10 recommendations to reform libel legislation, including caps for damages and costs in libel cases and a minimum limit for copies published in the UK before an international libel action can be taken involving that publication. The groups' ongoing campaign for reform with charity Sense about Science has received more than 52,000 signatures on a petition and have said the bill is an opportunity for the new government to make its plans for libel reform clear.

"With every week that passes, we are contacted by yet more writers and researchers who have been threatened with libel action. In the face of high costs and weak defences, they withdraw their articles, hold back their material from public discussion and, in the end, stop asking vital questions of public interest. Lord Lester’s Bill should be considered urgently by the government," says Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, in a statement.

Prior to the general election, all three main political parties pledged to reform libel law. Former Justice Secretary Jack Straw set up the working group on libel Reform, whose report in March proposed the introduction of a draft Libel Reform Bill in the next parliament, featuring similar changes to those proposed by the libel reform campaigners. In February the cross-party House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on 'Press Standards, Privacy and Libel' also recommended measures to lower the cost of libel cases, curb libel tourism and strengthen the public interest defence

The new government has said it will "reform libel law to protect freedom of speech" as part of its coalition agreement.

Disclaimer: Journalism.co.uk has pledged its support to the Libel Reform Campaign.

Related reading on Journalism.co.uk: 'Free speech may be the lifeblood of democracy, but are only the press entitled to it?' by Paul Tweed, Johnsons Solicitors' senior partner, who served on the former Justice Secretary's working group on libel reform.

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