More details of Lord Lester’s libel reform bill released

Yesterday I covered the news that Liberal Democrat Lord Lester is going to table a bill to reform libel law.

He has now released details of what approach the bill will take:

  • Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest;
  • Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as ’truth’ and ‘honest opinion’;
  • Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters;
  • Protect those reporting on proceedings in Parliament and other issues of public concern;
  • Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss;
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.

Of the bill Lord Lester has said:

The time is over-ripe for Parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech. No Government or Parliament has conducted a thorough and comprehensive review. My Bill provides the opportunity to do so and to modernise the law in step with the technological revolution. It creates a framework of principles rather than a rigid and inflexible code, and it seeks a fair balance between reputation and public information on matters of public interest.

Robert Dougans, Solicitor-Advocate for Simon Singh in his recent case against the British Chiropractic Association has welcomed the bill:

Lord Lester’s Bill should be welcomed by free speech campaigners. The proposals follow on from the Singh decision in expanding and enhancing the defence of honest opinion. This ought to be good news for all those seeking to engage in hard-hitting debate. The most important legacy might simply be putting much of libel law on a statutory basis. Attempts by the courts and Parliament to reform the libel laws have just added layers of complexity, to the extent that only specialist lawyers are able to advise upon it. This naturally increases costs and makes it harder to give definite advice.

Meanwhile Evan Harris has said:

Libel law reform is needed to prevent the chilling of comment which is in the public interest. It is therefore essential for scientists and academics and giving their opinion in good faith and responsibly, and their publishers, to know at the time of publication that they will have an effective defence against an unjustified libel plaintiff. Lord Lester’s skilfully crafted bill is one way of doing that and also offers the Government a vehicle for legislation following their review.

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