Libel reform

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Contents

Background

Various organisations and individuals claim that English libel laws, which favour the prosecution, are being used to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence. Prominent cases include the British Chiropractic Association suing Simon Singh, and Matthias Rath suing Ben Goldacre and The Guardian. In these cases those being sued were able to raise funds to support their defense, in many other cases the individuals are forced to settle rather than take on the massive financial risk of defending their case. In addition, the threat of being sued can stop scientific and journalistic articles from being published.

Due the law favouring the prosecution, England has become a centre for "libel tourism" with foreign individuals choosing to sue for libel in English courts rather than in their own country or that of the defendant. The laws are thus viewed as an international threat to free speech.

More information: http://libelreform.org/

Stance of Political Parties

Labour Party

It was reported on 22nd November 2009 that Jack Straw is preparing to draw up proposals for wholesale reform of England’s libel laws, and the current large legal fees were said to be "jeopardising freedom of speech, potentially curbing vital debate by scientists, academics and journalists."[1]

On 3rd March 2010 it was reported that Straw planned to cut the "success fees" lawyers can charge in libel cases helping to reduce legal costs[2].

Straw also set up the Libel Working Group which, on 23rd March 2010, published a report that can be downloaded from the Ministry of Justice's website[3].

On 23rd March 2010, Straw announced plans for further reform in the next parliament, including consideration of a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest, and moves to prevent the growth of libel tourism[4].

Liberal Democrat Party

Representatives from the campaign group Sense About Science spoke at a fringe meeting for libel reform at the Liberal Democrat Party conference on 20th September 2009. Following this the party voted overwhelmingly in favour of libel law reform[5]. This took the form of a call for "The protection of freedom of expression, by reforming the libel laws in England and Wales to ensure that a better balance is provided between free speech, responsible journalism, scientific discourse and the public interest on the one hand and powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests on the other."[6].

The Liberal Democrat Policy Briefing on Civil Liberties of October 2009 stated that "One of the first acts of a Liberal Democrat government will be to table a Freedom Bill to scrap the most intrusive and illiberal laws introduced by Labour. We will: [multiple points skipped] Protecting freedom of expression by reforming libel laws."[7]

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Party leader Mark Durkan became proposer of the amended Early Day Motion 423A1 following the sudden death of the original proposer. All three SDLP MPs have signed this amended motion in favour of libel law reform[8].

References

  1. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article6926997.ece
  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8548485.stm
  3. http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/libel-working-group-report.htm
  4. http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/newsrelease230310b.htm
  5. http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/403
  6. http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitutional_reform_detail.aspx?title=Policy_Motion%3a_Standing_Up_for_Civil_Liberties_-_carried&pPK=8cca2cac-052e-4b11-93b5-6540295b9da3
  7. http://www.libdems.org.uk/siteFiles/resources/Word%20Docs/Policy%20Briefing%20-%20Civil%20Liberties%20Oct%2009.doc
  8. http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=40034
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