Hoff’s scoff at libel reform

Mr Justice Tugendhat’s decision not to grant an injunction on the reporting of John Terry’s alleged misdemeanours was hailed by the media as a victory for free speech and, as an undeclared byproduct, a victory for some media groups to sell papers by the truckload.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of Tugendhat J. For the past few years Eady J has sat on all the biggest ­privacy and defamation cases and in the process has himself become the story. So much so that the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls are both sitting on the preliminary appeal hearing on one of Eady J’s judgments (and one of The Lawyer’s top 10 cases of the year), Simon Singh v British ­Chiropractic Association.

Enter former Law Lord and liberal pin-up Lord Hoffmann. Now, claimant libel lawyers often only have themselves to blame for the opprobrium heaped upon them, usually because of rapacious costs demands that are higher than the damages ­awarded (see any copy of Private Eye for details). But in an oddly underreported speech at Inner Temple Hall last week, Hoffmann evinced a robust scepticism about an overhaul of English libel law. The case for reform, he said, is “far from ­overwhelming”, and the efforts by English PEN and Index on Censorship to simplify libel law is ­”severely short on discussion of the issues”.

Most heartening to claimant lawyers, though, is Hoffmann’s dismissal of libel tourism as overhyped. “The complaints about libel tourism come entirely from the Americans and are based upon a belief that the whole world should share their view about how to strike the balance between freedom of expression and the defence of reputation,” he said.

Tugendhat J is now being tipped to hear more heavyweight privacy cases. After the Terry affair he may be seen as pro-media, but it looks as if it was Schillings’ attempted injunction against persons unknown that he didn’t like; there’s not much in the judgment that gives carte blanche to the press. It’s not healthy for one area of law to be associated so strongly with one judge, but Tugendhat J may not be the anti-Eady the tabloids are looking for.