Libel reforms set to become law

A bill to reform the libel system in England and Wales is set to become law after completing its passage through the Houses of Parliament.

 

The Defamation Bill was approved by the House of Commons on 24 April following the passing of final amendments in the House of Lords on 23 April.

The campaign to reform libel laws began in 2009, with science writers, academics, and the editors of the journals Nature and the BMJ making up some of the most prominent advocates.

As well as updating the law for the internet age, campaigners say the bill – which will become the Defamation Act 2013 once it receives Royal Assent - will give a stronger public interest defence in libel claims and bolster protection for academic publications.

It is also hoped that the change will rebalance the power between big companies and individuals, reducing libel’s “chilling” self-censorship effect by forcing companies to prove financial damages in order to be able to apply to sue.

This crucial part of the bill – the requirement that companies demonstrate actual or likely substantial financial loss when they sue – was debated until the end.

After backing an amendment to remove the requirement from the bill in the Commons, the government later changed their stance and backed a similar requirement in the House of Lords, which was approved on 23 April.

However the Lords also voted to reject an amendment that would have barred corporations from suing in relation to their delivery of contracted public services. 

Jo Glanville, director of the free expression campaign group English PEN said that, taken together, the provisions in the law would mean “that there is a wider space for free expression”.

“We hope more people, whether they are investigative journalists, bloggers or NGOs, will be emboldened to speak truth to power as a result,” she added.

Cases that sparked the campaign, which garnered considerable public backing, included that of science writer Simon Singh. He was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for saying they “happily promote bogus treatments” in a 2008 article, a case they later dropped.

Cardiologist Peter Wilmhurst also became a cause celebre having been sued by US company NMT Medical for questioning the safety of one of its heart devices at an academic conference.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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