Yesterday, the British government unveiled a Defamation Bill targeted at amending libel laws that are often used for "libel tourism," a tactic where plaintiffs file a libel suit in a foreign jurisdiction (usually the U.K., where there is often little to no jurisdictional link) to take advantage of a media law regime that favors plaintiffs, according to the Media Law Resource Center.
The Defamation Bill also puts an end to the use of juries in libel trials except when absolutely necessary, in an effort to cut costs and speed up the court process.
The main purpose of the bill is the reassertion of the importance of public interest and principle of defending the truth--both elements of a viable democracy--instead of having traditional libel laws co-opted by corporations and rich business people, interest groups, and celebrities with deep pockets, who sue with seemingly the intention of bankrupting media outlets and individual journalists that publish critique and dissenting opinion.
With this new bill, a court will not accept jurisdiction unless there is proof that England and Wales is clearly the right place to bring a suit against someone not living in the U.K. or in the European Union.
Also, a statement will not be viewed as defamatory unless its publication has caused, or is likely to cause, substantial harm to the claimant's reputation. Whereas at present, harm is presumed and there is no need to prove it.
The Guardian reports that Ken Clarke, justice secretary, published a draft bill that introduces "public interest" defense, which can be used by defendants in defamation cases and a requirement that claimants demonstrate substantial harm before suing.
Clarke, unveiling the draft bill alongside the minister of state for justice, Lord McNally, says the Defamation Bill will "ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence.... In recent years, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate and investigative journalism."
McNally adds: "Media organizations are no longer the giants that they once were and they too can be intimidated by very large corporations threatening to take excessive action against them for what would be justifiable criticism...."
In an additional statement reported by journalism.co.uk, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg adds his two cents by stating that current libel laws are "outdated" and have "made it easy for the powerful and wealthy to stifle fair criticism." Adding, "These reforms will restore a sense of proportion to the law, upholding the importance of free speech while ensuring that people are able to defend themselves against unfair and untrue allegations. The bill underlines the coalition government's commitment to civil liberties and to healthy, open debate."
There is also talk within government to extend what the draft bill covers to include responsibility for publication on the Internet, asking whether the law should be changed to give more protection to secondary publishers, such as Internet service providers and discussion forms. The Libel Reform Campaign welcomed the draft bill but thinks it is not enough and should go further in key areas, such as pushing more for public interest defense and putting an end to corporations suing for libel.