Nick Clegg

The deputy prime minister today outlined plans to reform the UK's libel laws, branding the current legislation an "international farce".

In a speech today at the Institute for Government, Nick Clegg announced the details of a draft defamation bill, due in Spring, which will include a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest, "whether they be big broadcasters or the humble blogger".

He said the government also intends to clarify the law surrounding existing defences of fair comment and justification.

Clegg also addressed a number of issues raised by the Libel Reform Campaign in its report from last year, "Free Speech Is Not For Sale", including online defamation, the problem of so-called "libel tourism" and the high legal costs of proceedings in the UK.

"It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses," he said.

"Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts - even if the connection with England is tenuous.

"It is a farce - and an international embarrassment - that the American Congress has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws."

Representatives of the Libel Reform Campaign, which includes Index on Censorship, Sense about Science and English PEN, said they welcomed the announcement.

"The deputy prime minister has not only acknowledged the chilling effect of our defamation laws, but taken our demands for reform fully on board," John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship said in a release.

"We’re delighted that that in tone and detail the draft bill will go a long way to tackling the chill on free speech emanating from English courts."

Last year at the second reading of Lord Lester's defamation bill in the House of Lords Justice Minister Lord McNally said the government would bring forward its own draft legislation.

It's understood that the government's draft bill in the Spring will be opened up to consultation.

The government has also published a consultation paper on proposals by Lord Justice Jackson to reform civil litigation funding in an attempt to "make costs more proportionate, more fair", Clegg added.

Image courtesy of the Liberal Democrat Party on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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