The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has made the welcome announcement thatBritain’s libel laws are to be reviewed. While Britainis a great bastion of freedom of speech, this concept is undermined by some aspects of our defamation laws that leave us open to ridicule.
One of the checks and balances in a democracy is the ability and right of people to criticise those in positions of power without facing financial ruin as a result. This capability applies to individuals just as much as to opinion-forming groups such as the media generally.
Our laws of libel and slander apply to false defamation in permanent and transient (speech) forms respectively. Concerns have grown about the severity of these laws with the advent of so-called libel tourism over the last 20 years. We have had wealthy foreign celebrities and business people taking advantage ofBritain’s libel laws. A number of Hollywood stars have used British courts to sue fellow Americans even whenBritainwas not the most appropriate jurisdiction. The link for these actions has sometimes been tenuous, referring for example, to a book being published in this country amongst many others,
Stopping libel tourism is one aspect of reform and the severity of our existing laws is another, and the noises coming from government bode well for both areas of reform. The government will be considering a strengthening of the fair comment defence and an extension of the public interest defence, which is currently restricted to journalists. It will also address the principle of having a clearer connection between a plaintiff and this country for a libel case to be heard here.
I hope that the government might also consider the costs of these legal actions. This cuts two ways. People wanting to write critical articles can be too often cowed into submission because of the very high cost of defending defamation cases. Articles written in the public interest might never see the light of day or be rapidly suppressed in obedience to unreasonable vested interests.
At the same time, there is, dare I say it, a class issue with the way that the law treats potential plaintiffs, those people who feel defamed. Many people say, “I’m going to sue over this matter”, but rapidly back off once they realise the costs that are involved, and the absence of legal aid. It is as though the law values only the defence of the reputations of the very rich. People not falling into that category, although potentially more vulnerable, have no defence.
The government’s review of the law is welcome. It has the potential to strengthen freedom of speech and reduce the money-spinning potential of our libel laws for the very few.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
10th January 2011