England & Wales

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Libel Reform Campaign urges Government to set date for next stage of Defamation Bill

The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the announcement that the Government will make time for the Defamation Bill to return to the House of Commons, and now urges the Prime Minister to schedule a date.

The Government had delayed bringing the bill back to the House of Commons, after peers approved controversial amendments to the legislation, tabled by Lord Puttnam, Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Mackay and Baroness Scotland.

However, as part of the negotiations over the Royal Charter for press regulation, the party leaders have agreed that these amendments to the Defamation Bill should be withdrawn.

After it emerged that the Bill had been delayed, hundreds of supporters of the Libel Reform Campaign wrote letters to their MPs, demanding that the parties fulfil their manifesto commitments to libel reform.

On 6th March 2012, an open letter from prominent authors, including Sir Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Margaret Drabble, said that it was “inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate.”

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN said:"It was wrong for the Defamation Bill to have been hijacked by the separate issue of press regulation. Nevertheless, we are glad that the three main parties have come together to fulfil their manifesto commitment to libel reform. The Government must now urgently set a date for the next stage in the parliamentary process, and guide this bill into law without further delay."

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, said:

"The Defamation bill should never have been hijacked by those attempting to introduce elements of statutory press regulation. I am delighted that these amendments have been removed; the Bill should now be passed as quickly as possible to end the chilling of free speech by england's archaic libel laws."

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, said:

"There are thousands of people in this country and beyond who are waiting to see this archaic law of defamation finally reformed. They want an end to the chilling effects of libel laws on matters of public interest. Over the past few days hundreds of people and organisations have written to the party leaders and local MPs to warn against any delay in bringing the Defamation Bill back to the House of Commons. They will be pleased that they have been heard."

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10 days to save libel reform

We need your urgent help this week to get the libel reform bill back to the House of Commons. There is the real risk that unless we act it will be dropped.

We have all worked hard to win the case for reform – to show the chilling effects of the current law on citizens, to secure commitment from the three main parties and to get a bill that ends bullying and protects the public interest. We did all of this and politicians rose above the fray to work together on it.

But it is now threatened. As you may have read over the past week, the bill has been hijacked by a group of peers who have inserted amendments to introduce press regulation proposals from the Leveson debate ‘by the back door’. The bill needs to go back before the Commons in the next two weeks, but the Government has not tabled it. It has to do so, because if the bill does not complete its passage before the parliamentary session ends in late April or early May it will be lost.

Please write to your MPs, any other MPs you know, party leaders and anyone else in the House of Commons whom you think might be urged to press the Government. We have to tell MPs that:

  • The Defamation Bill is a citizens’ bill. Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of organisations have engaged in bringing it about. It has been through three public consultations, two working groups and seven parliamentary debates. It has been a uniquely collaborative process with an impressively principled political response. The political manoeuvring of a group of peers should not threaten this. These matters should be pursued in more suitable legislation and the amendment reversed in the Commons.
  • The Government should put the bill back into the Commons now, so that the amendment can be removed, final tweaks made and the law changed.
  • The case for reform emerged from a series of revelations that libel threats are silencing scientists, doctors, biographers, community lawyers, consumer groups, human rights activists and many others all over the world, while current libel laws offer a poor, inaccessible system of redress. Every week that the bill does not progress, this situation continues.

You can send a message to your MP using our "Don't Kill the Bill" page.

Don’t hesitate to contact us with questions and other ideas about how to bring this to everyone's attention, and to share your correspondence. We need you all.

Best wishes,

Síle and Mike

Information: www.libelreform.org

To donate: www.justgiving.com/libelreform2012

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Purpose of the Defamation Bill

At a debate on the Defamation Bill in the House of Lords on 5th February a group of Peers led by Lord Puttnam inserted an amendment into the Bill that contained some proposals on press regulation from Lord Justice Leveson's report.

Tracey Brown writes in the Guardian on 8th February that the Defamation Bill is a citizen's bill - it came about because of revelations that libel threats had silenced scientists, doctors, biographers, community lawyers, consumer groups and human rights activists. Hundreds of these people and groups fed into the development of the Defamation Bill. "It's been a marathon getting this vital libel reform bill through the Lords. Let's not shackle it to a contentious press regulation plan" Read the article here.

Matthew Parris writes in the Times on 9th February that This nasty virus could kill off press freedom.

Lord Lester's letter setting out the purpose of the Defamation Bill and explaining why Leveson amendments don't belong there was published in the Times on Tuesday 19th February:

"Sir, Lord Skidelsky’s reasons (letter, Feb 18) for supporting the Puttnam amendments to the Defamation Bill are misconceived, for the following reasons. First, the Bill is designed to make much-needed reforms to outmoded English libel law not to tackle media intrusion on private life. The Leveson report is about privacy, not libel, and it is beyond the Bill’s scope to include privacy.

 

Second, the exorbitant cost of bringing or defending libel claims is being dealt with by changes in civil procedure and costs rules under the supervision of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson. Third, the Bill rightly does not “prevent the publication of things which may be true, but whose publication has no sufficient reason”. Max Mosley failed to persuade our courts or the European Court of Human Rights to adopt such a rule, involving a prior restraint on publication, because of its adverse impact on the freedom of expression of the press and the public.

 

Fourth, Skidelsky supports the proposal that “If the regulator gave a green light [to publication], the newspaper would be protected. But if the newspaper published without seeking advice or ran the story against advice from the regulator, it would be at risk of exemplary damages.” The only European states with such a rule are former states of the Soviet Union. The proposal clearly violates the right to free speech protected by common law and article 10 of the Convention.

 

Fifth, the arbitral system he supports is inquisitorial and not adversarial. It is not a voluntary scheme because of the threat of exemplary damages for failure to use a recognised arbitration service. The extension of exemplary damages recommended by Leveson was twice rejected by the previous Labour Government and by Mr Justice Eady in the Mosley case. It was rejected for good reason.

 

Sixth, the proposed scheme does not satisfy the requirements of judicial process required by article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and is one-sided.

 

The Labour Party has so far given firm support to this much-needed Coalition Bill that has now been taken hostage and is in limbo. I hope that, with Labour support, the Bill will be set free when it returns to the Commons.

 

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC
London EC4"

The story continues in the press:

19th February

Daily Mail: A curb on a free Press never seen in a democracy: Leading peer attacks Labour attempt to shackle media

Daily Mail editorial: Defending freedom

20th February

Times: Defamation Bill

Daily Mail: Ministers seek to overturn Labour threat to free press

Daily Mirror: MPs vow to stop Lords bid to curb free press

 

Daily Mirror editorial: Lords of tyranny

The Sun 5 days to save free speech

21st February

Daily Telegraph: Lords' curb shackles press, says MP

Daily Telegraph editorial: Putting self interest ahead of press freedom

The Times: Libel reform 'hijacked in move for press control by back door'

The Times: Pay attention - your liberty is under attack

Today programme, BBC Radio 4Legal advice casts doubt on Leveson proposal (at 2hrs 45)

The Times: Leveson plans to fine papers that opt our 'are unlawful'

23rd February

The Daily Mail: End rough justice for hacking suspects says Attorney General as investigation leaves journalists in 'legal limbo'

24th February

The Sunday Telegraph: Read between the lines: this is press censorship

The Observer: What price freedom with Labour's stance on libel?

25th February

The Times letters: Freedom of the press and gagging orders

The Independent: Ian Burrell: Popular to pariah… how Lord Puttnam killed the historic Defamation Bill

The Independent: Harman piles pressure on PM to toughen press regulation plan

The Guardian: Libel reform is at risk, all because of a fit of pique

The Daily Telegraph: David Cameron needs to 'man up' Royal Charter press regulation plan, says Harriet Harman

The Daily Mail: Tory threat to rival parties over libel law

David Allen Green blog: A Leveson supporter calls on Lord Puttnam to drop the “Libel Reform” amendments

26th February

The Daily Telegraph: Peers criticised after vote on Defamation Bill

The Independent: Libel law reform Bill thrown into doubt

The Daily Mail: Peers dilute Press plan which 'threatens free speech'

The Guardian: Put burden of proof on claimants

The Times: Peers drop plan for press to seek approval before printing

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Jack Straw pledges action to end libel tourism

JACK STRAW is preparing to draw up proposals for wholesale reform of England’s libel laws, after a long-running Sunday Times campaign.

The justice secretary says the large legal fees involved in defamation cases in English courts are jeopardising freedom of speech, potentially curbing vital debate by scientists, academics and journalists.

The huge payouts awarded to individuals who successfully claim their reputation has been damaged has made London the libel capital of the world.

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