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Libel Law Debate

1st December 2010

Jonathan Djanogly replies to a debate on the misuse of Britain's libel laws.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing today's debate on such an important and contemporary issue. Let me start by confirming that the Government are firmly committed to reviewing the law on defamation in order to protect free speech, and that is reflected in our coalition agreement. My noble Friend Lord McNally confirmed that commitment in July by announcing on behalf of the Government that we will publish a draft defamation Bill for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in the first Session of this Parliament, with a view to introducing a substantive Bill as soon thereafter as parliamentary time allows.

Our core aim in reviewing the law is to ensure that responsible journalism, academic and scientific debate and the valuable work of non-governmental organisations are properly protected, and that a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved, so that people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation where appropriate, but that free speech is not unjustifiably impeded.

Ensuring that the right balance is struck is a difficult and sensitive exercise. It raises complex issues on which a wide range of differing views are likely to be held. In recognition of that, I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that we believe that any reform proposals will need to be the subject of extensive consultation, and that publication of a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny, together with a full public consultation, represents the most effective approach to achieving substantive provisions that focus on core issues of concern where legislation can make a real difference.

Since Lord McNally's announcement, the Ministry of Justice held informal discussions with a range of people and organisations with an interest in defamation law to ensure that their views are taken into account. These included: non-governmental organisations and libel reform campaigners; claimant representatives and members of the legal profession; representatives of the media and the publishing industry; internet service providers and other internet-based organisations; and representatives of the science community. I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that they included, as he requested, Index on Censorship, PEN and Sense About Science.

My right hon. Friend featured the position of the science community very strongly in his remarks. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on many of the cases that he mentioned, given that proceedings are pending. I can confirm, however, that we are very much aware of the concerns about the harmful impact that the current law is having on scientific debate. The case of Simon Singh and his brave stand for his beliefs have been widely reported, and I was pleased to hear his position being clearly explained this evening by his MP, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). We want to ensure that any provisions that we introduce will help to address those concerns and enable robust scientific and academic debate to flourish without being hampered by the threat of libel proceedings.

The discussions that we held were extremely helpful in identifying areas in which concerns exist and the possible approaches to tackling the difficulties that arise with the current law. We have also had the benefit of being able to consider the range of issues raised in the private Member's Bill on defamation that was introduced earlier in the year by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. That Bill was also the subject of a debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) in Westminster Hall in July this year on behalf of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs. It is good to see him here this evening.

It is not possible for me to indicate today precisely what provisions might be included in the Government's draft Bill on defamation. However, a range of issues have been the subject of much discussion and debate over recent months, and I can confirm that we are giving careful consideration to them, to assess whether it is appropriate to include provisions in the draft Bill. They include the need for a statutory defence relating to the public interest and responsible journalism. Concerns have been expressed by non-governmental organisations, the scientific community and others that there is a lack of certainty over how the common law defence established in Reynolds v. Times Newspapers applies outside the context of mainstream journalism, and that this creates a chilling effect on freedom of expression and investigative reporting. This is a complex area of the law, and we are considering whether and how a statutory defence could be framed in a way that is beneficial and appropriate for a range of different contexts.

We are also considering libel tourism. My right hon. Friend gave various examples of that. There is a widespread perception that the English courts have become the forum of choice for those who wish to sue for libel, and that that is having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. I have to say to him, however, that there are mixed views over the extent to which libel tourism is a real problem. Research conducted in the context of the libel working group's consideration of this issue did not show a significant number of actual cases involving foreign litigants in the High Court in 2009. However, non-governmental organisations have indicated that a major problem arises from the threat of libel proceedings by wealthy foreigners and public figures, which is used to stifle investigative journalism, regardless of whether actual cases are subsequently brought-hence the fact that the number of cases alone might not accurately reflect the extent of the problem.

We are considering possible options carefully in reaching a decision on the way forward, including the proposal of the Ministry of Justice libel working group for procedural steps to tighten the rules and practice in order to head off inappropriate claims at the earliest possible stage, in cases where court permission is required to serve a defamation claim outside England and Wales. In doing so, we are of course keeping in mind the fact that there is relevant European legislation-in particular the Brussels I regulation-on jurisdictional matters.

We are also considering the difficulties caused by the "multiple publication rule"-whereby each publication of defamatory material gives rise to a separate cause of action subject to its own limitation period-in relation to online material. The effect of the rule is that publishers are potentially liable for any defamatory material published by them and accessed online. That applies however long after the initial publication the material is accessed, and whether or not proceedings have already been brought in relation to the initial publication. We are considering how we could frame a single publication rule to remove the current threat of open-ended liability.

We are also considering a range of other aspects of the law. They include the possible need for provisions on renaming and codifying the existing defences of justification and fair comment; on the basis on which an action for defamation can be brought and whether it should be necessary for claimants to show that they have suffered substantial harm; on the ability of corporations to bring defamation actions; on trial by jury; on defamation in the context of internet publication; and on issues relating to absolute and qualified privilege. There is much ground to cover

My right hon. Friend asked about the use of super-injunctions. I can tell him that the Master of the Rolls has set up a committee to examine their use. We look forward to seeing the outcome of its work soon.

We are pressing ahead with our work to ensure that publication of the draft Bill and the accompanying consultation paper takes place on as timely a basis as possible in the new year. As well as considering the substantive law, we are determined to ensure that costs in all civil proceedings, including defamation, are proportionate. In that context, the Secretary of State for Justice announced to the House on 15 November that the Government were consulting on proposals for reform of civil litigation funding and costs in England and Wales. We are seeking views on the implementation of a package of recommendations made by Lord Justice Jackson in his "Review of Civil Litigation Costs". The Government are grateful for Sir Rupert Jackson's report, in which he argues cogently that the costs of civil litigation are too high and are often disproportionate to the sums at issue. I also accept his fundamental argument that achieving proportionate costs and promoting access to justice go hand in hand.

The key proposal on which we are consulting is the one to abolish recoverability of success fees and "after the event" insurance premiums under conditional fee agreements. Defendants who lose their cases are currently liable for those additional costs, which are often substantial. Abolishing recoverability would mean that claimants had to pay their lawyers' success fees, and would therefore take an interest in the costs being incurred on their behalf. It is clear that if the current situation continues, and claimants continue to have no interest in the legal costs of their own lawyer if they win or in those of the defendant's lawyer if they lose, the "have a go" compensation culture can only grow.

As well as consulting on that key proposal for reform of CFAs, we are seeking views on implementing a package of Sir Rupert's recommendations that balances measures for defendants with measures affecting claimants. They include introducing qualified one-way cost shifting, increasing general damages by 10%, strengthening part 36 arrangements, which encourage parties to make and accept reasonable offers, and allowing damages-based agreements in civil litigation, otherwise known as contingency fees. It is hoped that the proposals will result overall in more proportionate costs in all civil proceedings including defamation, while enabling those who need access to justice to obtain it. The consultation on reform of civil litigation funding and costs closes on 14 February 2011, and in due course the Government will publish a response setting out the next steps.

I hope that I have reassured my right hon. Friend and other colleagues that we are taking focused and proportionate action that takes account of many of the issues involved. I believe that it is very important to ensure that the law achieves a fair balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation, and that steps are taken to bring the cost of proceedings under control. I thank my right hon. Friend again for the valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on these issues that he has made today.

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