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Defamation Bill debate

12th June 2012

Jonathan Djanogly winds up the Second Reading of the Defamation Bill which aims to reform the law to ensure the right balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have had an extensive and informed debate in which many varied and interesting points have been raised. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, our core aim in introducing the Bill is to reform the law so that it strikes the right balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. I was impressed by the elegant description of this balance by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips).

I want to take this opportunity to thank the draft Bill Committee members, a number of whom have spoken today. They were very capably chaired by Lord Mawhinney, and we have valued their recommendations and careful scrutiny of the Bill. I also thank Lord Lester, whose private Member’s Bill focused attention on this important issue. I am sure that the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the openness of the Government’s position in the Joint Committee will be well received by my noble Friend, Lord McNally, who has worked very hard on this legislation over the past year.

As the points that have been raised illustrate, there is a range of views on exactly what the balance should be and on how individual issues should be dealt with, but for the most part these are issues of nuance rather than principle. I can confirm to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) that of course I remain in listening mode and shall continue to do so throughout the Committee’s proceedings. I welcome the clear recognition from the shadow Secretary of State and Members on both sides of the House that reform of defamation is needed. I also welcome the support that has been expressed for the Bill and what we are trying to achieve with it. The Bill was described as a “burning light” by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler).

Let me respond to some of the specific points that hon. Members have raised. Questions were raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), the right hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) about how far the serious harm test raises the bar for claims. As the Secretary of State indicated, it is our view that the requirement to show serious harm represents a higher hurdle than the current law. It will be a matter for the courts to determine how the test should apply in individual cases, but we wish to nudge the threshold up to deter trivial claims. No doubt we shall be discussing this issue further in Committee. Hon. Members have expressed concern that the test might require detailed evidence to be presented. We recognise that the introduction of the test might involve some front-loading of cost, but we believe it is better to resolve this issue at an early stage so that only cases involving serious harm proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has been a determined and consistent advocate for scientific research and freedoms. On his request for a strike-out power in clause 1, we took a different and wider approach than Lord Lester’s Bill on this issue. Our measures change the substantive law of defamation instead of focusing on one aspect of the procedure. Our intention is that the normal rules, as set out in the civil procedure rules, will apply. It seemed preferable to rely on those rules rather than create a new and unprecedented procedure for mandatory strike-outs. If the court decides that the serious harm test is not satisfied it will be able to use its power under the rules to strike out the claim.

On clause 2, the hon. Member for North Antrim and others have expressed concern that legislating to rename and restate the defence for justification as one of truth could lead to uncertainty about how far the new law might differ from existing law. The right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham also raised more general concerns about the Bill in the same regard. I agree that any new legislation will inevitably require interpretation and development by the courts in individual cases. However, as the Secretary of State indicated, we want to simplify and clarify the law, which has become unnecessarily complicated. We believe that the clause sets out the key principles of the defence as clearly as possible and will provide greater clarity and certainty in defamation proceedings.

Similar concerns were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) regarding the new statutory defence of honest opinion and whether it would be misused by the press. Again, this is an area in which the law has become particularly complex and technical and has often led to protracted disputes. I confirm to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that clause 3 clarifies and simplifies the law. We believe that this change will provide greater certainty and will help to avoid unnecessary litigation and cost.

On clause 4, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), the right hon. Member for Tooting, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge have expressed the view held by some that the clause might not provide strong enough protection for publications in the public interest and that instead of the defendant having to show that a publication has been made responsibly, the claimant should have to show malice or recklessness on the part of the defendant in order to defeat the defence. We share the view of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that this would not be appropriate. It would widen the scope of the defence and not offer sufficient protection to people whose reputations had been defamed.

Our position is that the clause strikes the right balance and will provide effective protection for responsible publications, but we will be pleased to discuss the matter further in Committee, including the implications of the Flood decision. We do not consider, as suggested by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, that we have departed from the Reynolds defence. Clause 4 is based on existing common law and the defence established in Reynolds, and is intended to reflect the principles established in that case and subsequent case law. The essential test is whether the defendant has acted responsibly in a matter of public interest. That matches the case law and gives the court appropriate flexibility.

This is probably an appropriate time to consider the suggestion from the hon. Member for North Antrim that newspapers be required to notify people in advance about any story they propose to publish. We do not consider it appropriate to require that prior notification be given to the subjects of newspaper articles. However, the defence in clause 4 follows the Reynolds case in identifying as factors that the court can consider in deciding whether the publication was responsible, first, whether the defendant sought the claimant’s views on the statement complained of before publishing it and, secondly, whether an account of any views the claimant expressed was published with the statement.

On clause 5, many hon. Members have discussed how technology has changed the arena in which defamation operates. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and for Bishop Auckland raised important questions about the extent to which the new provisions will tackle trolling and abusive behaviour on the internet. Clause 5 establishes a new procedure that can be followed by website operators on receipt of a complaint about defamatory material on the site on which they host user-generated content. Provided that website operators comply with this procedure, they will have a defence against a civil action for defamation. The procedure focuses on putting complainants in touch with the author of allegedly defamatory material so that they can take action against the author and bring civil proceedings of defamation, if the matter cannot be resolved by other means.

It is recognised, of course, that the dead cannot be defamed, but it is also important to recognise, in response to the sad case in Liverpool mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, that a range of criminal offences exist to tackle trolling and other offensive behaviour on the internet. These criminal sanctions include section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which creates an offence of sending or causing to be sent

“by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Section 127 has been used to prosecute instances of cyber-bullying, hate crime, homophobic crime, incitement to violence, crimes committed by animal extremists, domestic violence and other sorts of threatening and abusive behaviour. Other offences, under statutes such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, may apply, depending on the circumstances.

The Crown Prosecution Service will determine under which legislation to progress prosecution, depending on the circumstances of each case. Some 2,000 criminal prosecutions for trolling have occurred in the past year, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire that action must be taken, where appropriate, and that trolling can be a very nasty business indeed. She clearly explained the range of the activities involved. We are confident that this criminal legislation is being used effectively to tackle offensive behaviour, as the recent case involving Facebook demonstrates. In addition, clause 5 will help to improve the civil law in relation to defamatory postings. Our idea is to help enable the claimant to take action against the author, including anonymous trolls, at a low cost and with the possibility of avoiding the involvement of lawyers.

Paul Farrelly: I have learned in this debate that the word “troll” is being used in this way. Let us not give these people the respectability of Norse mythology. Can we not describe them as they are? Can we avoid using “troll” and just say that these are sad, irresponsible people?

Mr Djanogly: I understand and agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment, however I am reflecting what is now in common usage and “troll” is a word that people will understand. Some people understand it in either the criminal or the civil context, but the point I am making is that it can be used in both contexts.

Our approach will also promote freedom of expression by helping to ensure that material is not needlessly taken down without the author being given the opportunity to defend it, as often happens now. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that we will also be ensuring that protection is in place for whistleblowers.

Robert Flello: Will the Minister please address the issue of what happens when a defamatory statement is put on a website anonymously and the website operator then tells the person defamed who the person posting it is but they are impecunious and are out of jurisdiction? What happens then in terms of taking the statement off the website, because the website operator now has a defence?

Mr Djanogly: If the website operator has a defence, they are out of the picture. That does not stop action being taken against the anonymous troll, but that would have to be done by way of an order, which, admittedly, would be a more expensive procedure.

Nadine Dorries: I believe, and think that the shadow Minister probably does too, that the entire process whereby the responsibility is on the website owner to seek out and address the libellous or defamatory comments left by a troll will be enough to encourage that website owner to remove the comments themselves if they do not get a satisfactory answer. I know that it is not in legislation, but I believe that that even happens now and so this approach will help to reinforce that process.

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would be the first to admit that there are no silver bullets here. We are looking at a range of proposals that will give an array of weaponry to deal with what we consider to be a dangerous situation. Let me make it clear that the Government are committed to tackling trolling, cyber-bullying and other forms of abuse and misuse of social networking sites by working with industry, academia, charities and parenting groups to develop tools and information for users aimed at keeping society safe online.

The Government are pressing the internet industry in the UK and Europe to implement clear and simple processes for dealing with abuse online, and we have also recently reviewed our cyber-bullying policy. For the most part, social network site operators adopt sensible and responsible positions on any misuse or abuse of their services in the terms and conditions they require of their users. They support this with systems for notification of breach and removal of material in breach. This corporate responsibility of operators, aligned with collective responsibility on users to report misuse, provides the basis for self-regulation of the internet and a more immediate means of monitoring and dealing with abuse.

Many hon. Members queried when we would be publishing regulations to set out the new procedure in detail. I can say tonight that a note on the new process will be provided to the Public Bill Committee to aid its scrutiny of the Bill’s provisions, and draft regulations will be published for consideration by stakeholders in due course.

As the right hon. Member for Tooting said, we believe that extending the clause 6 protection is important in order to help encourage robust and open scientific and academic debate, and I, too, acknowledge the principled stand and ongoing participation of Dr Simon Singh in this area. In drafting the clause, we have given careful consideration to defining key elements of the peer-review process to ensure that the scope of the provisions is clear and appropriate, and we are satisfied that it is.

The hon. Member for North Antrim, among others, expressed the view that the problem of libel tourism has been exaggerated. We recognise that there are mixed views on how far libel tourism is a real problem; my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), among others, took the opposite view, saying that it is a serious problem. However, I point out that the number of cases alone may not accurately reflect the extent of the problem, as the threat of proceedings by wealthy foreigners and public figures can be used to stifle investigative journalism, regardless of whether cases are ultimately brought. That is a form of legal arbitrage and on balance we believe that there is a need to take action specifically to address the issue. We must lose our growing reputation as the libel capital of Europe.

As for how clause 10 will interface with the new defence for website operators under clause 5, if a website operator were to fail to follow the process and then attempt to use a clause 10 defence on the basis that they were not the author, editor or commercial publisher of the third-party material, it would be for the court to decide whether the fact that they had failed to follow the process set out in clause 5 meant that it was not reasonably practicable for the claimant to pursue the primary publisher.

The right hon. Member for Tooting, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West, for Gainsborough and for North East Somerset and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham discussed issues relating to a person’s reputation being decided by his or her peers in the form of a jury. I understand those views but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State outlined, in practice very few defamation cases now involve juries. We need to appreciate that jury trials can create practical difficulties and add significantly to the length and cost of proceedings, and that if the judge believes that a jury trial is appropriate that will still be a possibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, the proposal should also help moves towards early settlement.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon gave a lively exposition of how the move away from jury trials is part of what he described as an evolutionary process of libel law. The right hon. Member for Tottenham asked about guidelines and whether they should be included in the Bill to assist the court in the exercise of its discretion to order trial by jury. A clear majority of consultation responses considered that such guidelines would not be necessary. The courts are already familiar with exercising their discretion to order jury trial when appropriate, and we believe it would be preferable to allow them to continue to do that without specific guidance in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, the shadow Justice Secretary, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and others have touched on the new procedure for resolving key preliminary issues at an early stage and its relationship with costs. Let me say first to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South that we agree that this is an important issue, and I agree with the shadow Justice Secretary that if we can reduce procedure we can reduce costs.

During our initial discussions with interested parties in the summer of 2010, it became apparent that a major area of concern was the extent to which defamation proceedings can become mired in disputes over preliminary issues. That contributes substantially both to the time taken to resolve cases and to the costs involved. For example, in British Chiropractic Association v. Singh proceedings in relation to whether the words complained of were matters of fact or opinion took almost two years to resolve. When a ruling was ultimately given on the issue by the Court of Appeal the claim was withdrawn, but by that point substantial costs had been incurred and the defendant had been placed in a position of considerable uncertainty and stress over an extended period.

In the light of such concerns the Government consulted, alongside consultation on the draft Defamation Bill, on the possibility of introducing a formal new procedure in the High Court to channel all cases in which proceedings are issued through a process whereby early rulings can be given on key issues that currently contribute substantially to the length and cost of the proceedings. That would help to clarify the issues in dispute and the defences that may be available and should assist in encouraging early settlement in many cases. The practical implications of the proposal were discussed with members of the senior judiciary with experience in defamation cases and those views were taken into account by the Government in developing a skeleton outline of how the procedure could work, which was published in the consultation document.

The main preliminary issues which the outline envisaged being determined under the new procedure were whether the claim satisfies the serious harm test where this is disputed, which would enable claims failing that test to be struck out as early as possible; what the actual meaning of the words complained of is and whether that meaning is defamatory; and whether the words complained of were a statement of fact or an opinion.

It was envisaged that the procedure would be automatic in all cases where any of these issues needed to be resolved. In addition, other issues which it was considered could potentially be determined, if relevant, were whether the publication is on a matter of public interest, because an early decision on whether a matter is or is not in the public interest could help to determine whether there is any scope for the defendant to use this defence; whether the publication falls within the categories of publication in schedule 1 to the Defamation Act 1996 for which the defence of qualified privilege is available, as this would help to clarify whether it is open to the defendant to use this defence; and consideration of costs budgeting in appropriate cases, depending on the outcome of the ongoing costs budgeting pilot.

Sir Peter Bottomley: On the case of Dr Singh and the chiropractors’ action against him, the House would like to know, if not now then in Committee or on Report, that the changes which are proposed, both in the Bill and in what my hon. Friend the Minister is describing now, would have chilled the chiropractors and they would not have tried to take the bad action that they took, based on bad science and on money and bullying.

Mr Djanogly: We intend that issue to be addressed both in terms of the substantive law and in terms of the procedure.

Paul Farrelly: I was also trying to give the Minister a pause for breath when the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) intervened. I tabled the question on Trafigura. One of the consequences was that because of the clash between Parliament and the courts, the courts started to look at how their procedures were working. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, issued a press statement saying, in effect, “I did not realise what my courts were doing.” Similar circumstances are applicable in libel, but they have not come to a constitutional clash, which why it is so important that the Government look at civil procedure rules and make sure that the courts are managed properly from the top by the Lord Chief Justice and throughout, without our intervening in their affairs.

Mr Djanogly: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is already happening and forms the subject of my not infrequent meetings with the Master of the Rolls.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Following up the very important Trafigura issue, if either a solicitor or a barrister ever purports to a client or to someone on the other side that they cannot talk to their Member of Parliament about a matter of public interest, whether international, as in the case of Trafigura, or in a number of medical cases where hospitals or trusts appear to try to silence a consultant, a clinician or a nurse on the issue of patient safety, I hope the Minister will join me in saying that the standards board for the barristers or the solicitors should say, “That person is unprofessional and will be subject to discipline.”

Mr Djanogly: If someone has a problem with the advice that they receive from their professional, they can of course go to the complaints organisations.

We indicated in the consultation document that the Civil Procedure Rule Committee would be asked to consider appropriate procedural changes through secondary legislation to support the new approach. A majority of respondents on this issue were in favour of introducing a new court procedure to resolve key preliminary issues at an early stage. Many of these argued that procedural reform aimed at speeding up defamation proceedings and reducing costs is one of the most important elements of any proposed reform of the law. However, a small number of legal professionals argued that it is unnecessary and could add further complexity.

A range of comments were provided on the issues that would be suitable for determination under the procedure and on other points of detail. I can confirm to the House that we are considering these in working up detailed proposals for the Civil Procedure Rules Committee to consider.

Paul Farrelly: At a time when the country is going through some severe problems, we have more pilots in the legal profession than we have, potentially, in the RAF, determining how to cut the costs of lawyers in defamation cases. When we discussed this in the Select Committee, we came to the ludicrous conclusion that cost-capping measures in the courts led only to costs increasing because of the number of cases that were being discussed for cost-capping. It is important that the Government and the Courts Service get a grip on, I am sad to say, how judges run their own courts.

Mr Djanogly: We have been doing that, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we addressed the issue to some extent in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, although perhaps not to his satisfaction. As I have said, we are also consistently discussing the issue with the judiciary, because it is an important one.

These issues should not need primary legislation, which is why they do not appear in the Bill. However, I can assure the House that we are firmly committed to ensuring that they are addressed in order to reduce costs and encourage settlements and that we are taking the work forward on all these issues alongside the Bill.

With regard to the provision sought by the right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Newcastle-under-Lyme and my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, namely a specific provision requiring corporations to show financial harm, a proposal made by the Committee, we share the view that the inequality of financial means that exists when a large corporation sues or threatens smaller companies, individuals or non-governmental organisations lies at the heart of current concerns. In view of the fact that corporations are already prevented from claiming for certain types of harm, such as injury to feelings, in order to satisfy the Bill’s “serious harm” test a corporation would in practice be likely to have to demonstrate actual or likely financial harm in any event.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham, the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Stoke-on-Trent South and others made observations on cost protection for claimants in defamation cases in the light of concerns raised during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. The Government’s reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements in that Act should not prevent strong cases being brought. However, we recognise the concern that individuals who are not wealthy or powerful sometimes need to bring defamation or privacy cases. The Bill and the procedural reforms we intend to take forward alongside it seek to reduce the complexity and cost of defamation proceedings. In order to achieve those aims, I can confirm that we are carefully considering the issue of cost protection in defamation and privacy proceedings and will keep Parliament updated as the Bill progresses.

Continuing the theme of privacy, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon suggested that the law on privacy should be codified. The Government welcome the report of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, on which he served. The Committee recommended, on a majority vote, that the law on privacy should not be codified. The Government are considering the recommendation, along with all the Committee’s other recommendations, and will publish our response in due course. My hon. Friend also queried whether section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 should be repealed. Section 13 relates to the ability of Members of Parliament to waive privilege in relation to defamation proceedings. The Government are consulting on the issue as part of the Green Paper on privilege and consider that the issue is better examined in that context than in the Bill.

In conclusion, the Government firmly believe that reform of the law is needed to bolster free speech and ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate and impede responsible investigative reporting or debate on issues of public importance, while ensuring that people whose reputations have been seriously harmed have clear and effective remedies against those responsible. I look forward to detailed scrutiny of the Bill and further constructive debate in Committee.

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