Houses of Parliament

Lord McNally: 'As far as this bill is concerned this is not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning.'

Credit: alancleaver_2000 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Justice minister Lord McNally today urged that the "very specific and focused reform" of libel law is not delayed and "swept away by a Leveson tsunami", in reference to the ongoing Leveson inquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the press.

Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum today Lord McNally said while he could not "anticipate" the contents of the Queen's Speech in May, which will contain the proposed legislation for the next parliamentary session, as set out by the government, he "would be extremely disappointed if a commitment to legislate on defamation was not part of it".

"But we will just have to wait and see," he added, adopting the words of Winston Churchill: "As far as this bill is concerned this is not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning."

He also sought to offer reassurance to "those crying betrayal" in reaction to the government's stance on a report by the joint scrutiny committee on the draft defamation bill, published by the government in March 2011.

"We are at stage in the process where if the bill is in the Queen's Speech we will go into the parliamentary process where both houses of parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise, debate and amend the bill as it makes its way through parliament."

In a response to the Ministry of Justice's statement issued earlier this month giving an assessment of the joint committee's report, the Libel Reform Campaign said the proposals "do not yet address the extensive problems of libel bullying and the chill on public debate".

The Alternative Libel Project, run by campaigners English PEN and Index on Censorship, is due to launch its final report on the matter of libel reform later today.

In his speech to the seminar today McNally said he wanted to "re-emphasise a commitment to reform this law".

"The law currently is not in the right place and rebalancing is needed.

"At the same time it is also important that people unjustly defamed are not left without effective remedies.

"The core aim throughout the reform has been to ensure we get the right balance."

He also outlined the "key issues" which came out of the consultation on the draft defamation bill.

This includes the "new requirement that a statement must have caused substantial harm", in a bid to "help discourage trivial and unfounded claims from being brought".

But he said "the committee and many consultation reponses considered a higher hurdle should be applied and on reflection we agree".

McNally also discussed the issue of legislating for the internet, in particular how to afford "greater protections to online intermediaries".

Tackling the online issue is "a particularly complex area" he said, and one the government sought views on from the industry itself.

He said this "yielded many helpful responses", as well as the comments given on the matter to the joint committee.

"We agree with the committee and the majority of consultation responses that it is appropriate to give a greater degree of protection" but that "in light of discussions" it it thought that there may be practical and technical difficulties with the system put forward by the committee.

"I don't believe the debate on how we get right the issue of how the bill applies to the internet is by any means over or closed."

He added that the preference currently would be a system which would involve the online intermediary "acting as a liaison point" between the complainant and the person who posted the content, where they are not identified.

"Under this approach, provided the intermediary complies with the procedure ... then they will be protected from any liability."

He stressed that this topic is "still work in progress".

As for costs, McNally said he believes the "package of measures will help to reduce the cost and length of proceedings and lessen the likelihood of costs".

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